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 wildly popular social media platform is being accessed in China.
In a tweet Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr shared a letter addressed to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the chief executives of Apple and Google parent Alphabet, respectively. He raised concerns over TikTok’s Chinese ownership, saying “it harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing.”
Carr can’t single-handedly compel them to ban TikTok, since the FCC doesn’t regulate app stores. But the request nonetheless underscores the scrutiny that the leading tech firms continue to draw from powerful regulators in both parties, and marks yet another chapter in TikTok’s complicated dance with the U.S. government.
Carr, one of three Trump-appointed FCC commissioners still in office, referenced a recent BuzzFeed News report that revealed that Beijing-based employees of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, had repeatedly accessed private information on U.S. users, despite company assurances to the contrary. He emphasized that TikTok is far from just a funny video app for young people, calling that aspect of its business “sheep’s clothing,” which disguises a sophisticated mass surveillance tool.
“It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that data,” Carr wrote. “But it is clear that TikTok’s pattern of conduct and misrepresentations regarding the unfettered access that persons in Beijing have to sensitive U.S. user data … puts it out of compliance with policies that both of your companies require every app to adhere to as a condition of remaining available on your app stores.”
A TikTok spokesperson, Brooke Oberwetter, declined to speak specifically to Carr’s letter, instead pointing to previous statements signaling the company would “gladly engage with lawmakers to set the record straight” regarding the BuzzFeed report.
“Recent reporting by BuzzFeed shows that TikTok is doing exactly what it said it would: addressing concerns around access to U.S. user data by employees outside the U.S. We’ve been clear and vocal about our work in this area as we seek to address both location and access to data,” Oberwetter wrote in an emailed statement.
Spokespersons for Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment on whether they will remove the app.
TikTok has exploded in popularity in recent years by allowing users to create short videos, modify them with music and visual effects, stream live, and engage with others, all with the touch of a smartphone. Its features and business model are similar to Facebook’s Instagram. Users can watch, post and engage with TikTok videos free of charge while the company makes money on advertisements.
But its data security practices and ownership have long drawn the scrutiny of regulators and conservative policymakers. The app’s critics are concerned that millions of its users could have their privacy invaded by the Chinese Communist Party – an entity with international ambitions that is known to use sophisticated technology tools to track and repress its own population.
It was identified as a potential national security threat in 2019, when U.S. officials approached ByteDance with their concerns. That turned into a formal national security investigation led by the Commerce Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, a secretive government body that is tasked with vetting foreign investments based on their national security implications.
In 2020 then-president Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders designed to ban TikTok in the United States. TikTok’s executives reassured the his administration that all U.S. data in its possession was stored in the United States and backed up in Singapore, The Washington Post reported in August 2020. ByteDance later struck a deal allowing TikTok to continue operating in the United States, under the ownership of ByteDance, provided that it work with a U.S.-based database provider. The ban was successfully challenged by a group of TikTok content creators later that year, who secured an injunction preventing it from taking effect.
It later forged a deal with database software giant Oracle to store its user data on that company’s cloud-based computer systems.
“We’re pleased that we now route 100% of U.S. user traffic to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and we are continuing to work on additional safeguards on U.S. data for improved peace of mind for our community,” Oberwetter, the TikTok spokesperson, said in an email.
The current administration has charted a different course on tech regulation than its predecessor while tapping Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel as chairperson. But President Biden’s other nominee, Gigi Sohn, has been blocked by congressional Republicans. That means the FCC, which traditionally has five commissioners, is led by three Trump appointees under a Democratic chairperson. Carr’s letter to Apple and Google was not signed by any of the other commissioners.
The Biden administration revoked its predecessor’s TikTok ban last June, replacing it with a new process to scrutinize whether these sorts of apps pose a threat. But officials emphasized that they are committed to protecting U.S. citizens’ data from foreign surveillance, however, and reserved the right to take further action.
“The Biden administration is committed to promoting an open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet; protecting human rights online and offline; and supporting a vibrant, global digital economy,” the administration said in a fact sheet. “Certain countries, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), do not share these values and seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests.”
Republican lawmakers are pressing for additional scrutiny. On Monday, nine GOP senators wrote to TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew requesting answers to a raft of questions covering the company’s data privacy practices and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
They took particular exception 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 stating that a Beijing-based engineer “had access to everything.” Those statements seemed 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 these reports, TikTok’s representative did not provide truthful or forthright answers to the Senate Commerce Committee,” the senators wrote.
Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.