A U.S. federal communications commissioner is calling on Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores over concerns that user data from the hugely popular social media platform could be accessed in China.
In a tweet on Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr shared a letter addressed to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, chief executives of Apple and Google parent Alphabet, respectively. He raised concerns about Chinese ownership of TikTok, saying “it’s harvesting swathes of sensitive data that new reports say are being accessed in Beijing.”
Carr can’t single-handedly get them to ban TikTok, because the FCC doesn’t regulate app stores. But the request nonetheless underscores the scrutiny that major tech companies continue to exert with powerful regulators on both sides, and marks a new chapter in TikTok’s messy dance with the US government.
Carr, one of three Trump-appointed FCC commissioners still in office, pointed to a recent BuzzFeed News report that found Beijing-based employees of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, had accessed several times to private information about US users, despite the company’s assurances to the contrary. He pointed out that TikTok is far from just a fun video app for young people, calling this aspect of its business “sheepskin” which disguises a sophisticated tool for mass surveillance.
“It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to the combination of its extensive data with Beijing’s seemingly uncontrolled access to that data,” Carr wrote. “But it’s clear that TikTok’s behavior and misrepresentations regarding people in Beijing’s unfettered access to sensitive U.S. user data … puts it out of compliance with the policies that your two companies require every app to adhere to as a condition. to remain available on your app stores.
A TikTok spokesperson, Brooke Oberwetter, declined to speak specifically about Carr’s letter, instead pointing to previous statements that the company would “happily engage with lawmakers to set the record straight” regarding the BuzzFeed report.
“Recent reports from BuzzFeed show that TikTok is doing exactly what it said it would do: address concerns about access to US user data by employees outside the US and data access ,” Oberwetter wrote in an emailed statement.
Spokespersons for Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would remove the app.
TikTok has exploded in popularity in recent years by allowing users to create short videos, edit them with music and visual effects, live stream and chat with others, all at the touch of a smartphone. . Its features and business model are similar to Facebook’s Instagram. Users can watch, post, and interact with TikTok videos for free while the company makes money on ads.
But its data security practices and ownership have long drawn the attention of regulators and conservative policymakers. The app’s critics fear that millions of users will have their privacy invaded by the Chinese Communist Party – an entity with international ambitions known to use sophisticated technological tools to track and suppress its own population.
It was identified as a potential national security threat in 2019, when US officials approached ByteDance with their concerns. It turned into an official national security investigation by the Commerce Department’s Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, or CFIUS, a secretive government agency tasked with vetting foreign investments based on their implications for the national security.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders to ban TikTok in the United States. TikTok executives reassured its administration that all US data in its possession was stored in the United States and backed up in Singapore, The Washington Post reported in August 2020. ByteDance then struck a deal allowing TikTok to continue to operate in the United States, under the ownership of ByteDance, provided that it works with a database provider based in the United States. The ban was successfully challenged by a group of TikTok content creators later that year, who won an injunction preventing it from taking effect.
He then struck a deal with database software giant Oracle to store his user data on that company’s cloud-based computing systems.
“We are excited to now route 100% of US user traffic to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and we continue to work on additional protections on US data to improve peace of mind for our community,” said Oberwetter, the TikTok spokesperson, in an email.
The current administration has charted a different course on tech regulation than its predecessor while bringing in Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel as chair. But President Biden’s other nominee, Gigi Sohn, was blocked by congressional Republicans. That means the FCC, which traditionally has five commissioners, is led by three Trump appointees under a Democratic chairman. Carr’s letter to Apple and Google was not signed by any of the other commissioners.
The Biden administration revoked its predecessor’s ban on TikTok last June, replacing it with a new process to review whether these types of apps pose a threat. However, the officials emphasized that they are committed to protecting US citizens’ data from foreign surveillance and reserve the right to take further action.
“The Biden administration is committed to promoting an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet; protect human rights online and offline; and support a vibrant global digital economy,” the administration said in a fact sheet. “Some countries, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), do not share these values and seek to leverage Americans’ digital technologies and data in ways that pose unacceptable national security risks while advancing controls and authoritarian interests.
Republican lawmakers are pushing for more scrutiny. On Monday, nine GOP senators wrote to TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew seeking answers to a series of questions about the company’s data privacy practices and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
In particular, they objected to statements, reported in the BuzzFeed article, in which a member of TikTok’s trust and safety department alleged that “everything is seen in China” and said that a Beijing-based engineer “had access asset”. Those statements appeared to contradict what TikTok’s head of public policy told the Senate Commerce Committee late last year.
“We are very concerned that, in light of this information, the TikTok representative has not provided truthful or candid responses to the Senate Commerce Committee,” the senators wrote.
Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.