Jul 7, 2022 - Technology

Washington turns up the heat on TikTok

Illustration of hands fighting over the Tik Tok logo.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok is facing a renewed round of bipartisan alarms over how fully it protects U.S. users' data from the Chinese government.

Why it matters: The short-video network survived a death sentence from former president Donald Trump and has grown into an increasingly influential social-media channel. But its rise has been dogged from the start by questions around its ownership by a Chinese parent company.

Driving the news: Leaders on the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders on Tuesday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate concerns that TikTok's data practices and corporate governance pose privacy and security risks for Americans.

  • The request, signed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), cited a recent BuzzFeed News investigation that seemed to contradict TikTok's testimony to the committee last year.
  • The complaint is the latest in a series recently raised by Washington Republicans about the company.

The big picture: TikTok is China's first major success at building a platform outside its domestic market — one that now poses a challenge to U.S.-based market leaders including Facebook and YouTube.

  • The network, fueled by a highly effective algorithm, feeds users an endless stream of addictive short videos.
  • But TikTok's Chinese parent company, ByteDance, has faced a long series of controversies focused on concerns over user data, security and the company's statements to U.S. authorities on those issues.

Our thought bubble, from Axios' Ashley Gold: The bipartisan letter shows that many on Capitol Hill believe TikTok could have lied under oath about its data practices.

  • An FTC investigation would move slowly, but could ultimately result in fines and require TikTok to adopt more secure practices.
  • "In light of repeated misrepresentations by TikTok concerning its data security, data processing, and corporate governance practices, we urge you to act promptly on this matter," the senators' letter to FTC chair Lina Khan reads.

FTC spokesperson Juliana Gruenwald Henderson confirmed in an email to Axios that the agency received the letter but had no additional comment.

Catch up quick: The senators' letter follows one from Republican FCC commissioner Brendan Carr last month, asking Apple and Alphabet to remove TikTok from their app stores over similar concerns.

  • Last month, nine Republican senators also sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew raising similar points. TikTok replied to the lawmakers in an eight-page letter about its plans to safeguard U.S. data.

Of note: The FTC has taken action against TikTok previously. In 2019, TikTok agreed to a $5.7 million settlement with the FTC for collecting children's personal data.

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