Nov 1, 2022 - World

FCC commissioner says government should ban TikTok

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr testifies during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr testifies during a House hearing on March 31. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Council on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) should take action to ban TikTok, Brendan Carr, one of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, told Axios in an interview.

Why it matters: It's the strongest language Carr has used to date to urge action on TikTok. With more than 200 million downloads in the U.S. alone, the popular app is becoming a form of critical information infrastructure — making the app's ownership by a Chinese parent company a target of growing national security concern.

  • The FCC has no authority to regulate TikTok directly, but Congress previously acted after Carr voiced concerns about Chinese telecom companies, including Huawei.

State of play: TikTok is currently in negotiations with CFIUS, an interagency committee that conducts national security reviews of foreign companies' deals, to determine whether it can be divested by Chinese parent company ByteDance to an American company and remain operational in the United States.

  • The New York Times reported in September that a deal was taking shape but not yet in its final form and that Department of Justice official Lisa Monaco was concerned the deal did not provide sufficient insulation from Beijing.
  • A Republican-controlled Congress could try to scrap any deal viewed as too easy on China.

What he's saying: "I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban," Carr said, citing recent revelations about how TikTok and ByteDance handle U.S. user data.

  • Carr highlighted concerns about U.S. data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence political processes in the United States.
  • There simply isn't "a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party]," Carr said.
  • Carr sent letters to Apple and Google in June asking the companies to remove the apps from their stores due to concerns about data flowing back to China.

What TikTok is saying: "Commissioner Carr has no role in the confidential discussions with the U.S. government related to TikTok and appears to be expressing views independent of his role as an FCC commissioner," a TikTok spokesperson told Axios in a statement.

  • "We are confident that we are on a path to reaching an agreement with the U.S. Government that will satisfy all reasonable national security concerns."
  • TikTok supports the passage of national data privacy legislation that applies to all companies, the spokesperson added.

What's happening: A series of recent reports have challenged TikTok's claims that U.S. user data is secure because it is stored outside of China and that the company does not comply with Chinese government content moderation requirements.

  • China-based engineers working at TikTok accessed nonpublic U.S. user information, including phone numbers and birthdays, BuzzFeed reported in June.
  • ByteDance, which is based in China, instructed employees to push pro-Beijing messaging to U.S. users of a news app, BuzzFeed reported in July. Bytedance said it did not do this.
  • ByteDance planned to use TikTok to collect information about certain U.S. users, according to a Forbes report published last month.

Flashback: The Trump administration unsuccessfully attempted to ban the app in 2020, then it ordered ByteDance to divest TikTok to a U.S. company. No sale went through.

  • Trump's crusade against TikTok was heavily criticized in progressive circles at the time, but recent reports seem to be shifting opinions.
  • "This is not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said last week. "If your country uses Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok … the ability for China to have undue influence is a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual, armed conflict."

What to watch: A growing number of U.S. political candidates are using TikTok to reach voters as the midterms draw near, raising the stakes on the app's fate.

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