November 28, 2023

TikTok is under fire again as officials in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission question whether it is effectively protecting US user data from the Chinese government.

Last month, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a senior Republican at the agency, sent a letter to the chief executives of Apple and Google asking them to remove TikTok from corporate app stores. Kar was martyred BuzzFeed News report From the June revelation that engineers from TikTok parent company ByteDance had repeatedly accessed US user data from within China, Carr’s practice Call “Hidden, secret.”

The commissioner asked the two companies to respond by July 8 if they decided to keep The most downloaded app in the world in their stores.

But experts told Insider that TikTok is not in real danger of being banned since Carr’s letter failed to confirm jurisdiction over the issue. Without a vote from all four FCC commissioners or direction from its chair, this is not considered an official action by the agency.

“The FCC’s action would require an innovative and compelling legal justification to claim authority over this issue,” Peter Cowey, dean emeritus of the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego and a former US government official, told Insider. “Carr’s letter omitted any such discussion. So, so far, it’s just a stunt that reflects the political mood of Washington, D.C.”

In an interview with Insider, Carr dismissed the idea that his June 24 message was a stunt, citing his previous work regarding the flow of US data to China through companies such as Huawei and China Mobile. But he said the FCC is unlikely to formally go ahead with banning TikTok from Apple and Android devices.

“This is not a situation like China Mobile or Huawei where there is a direct FCC license or a direct FCC authority,” Carr said. “I don’t expect the full FCC to take some kind of formal regulatory action here.”

Apple and Google have not yet responded to Carr’s message and have not responded to an Insider’s request for comment. But policy experts told Insider that companies are likely to ignore the demand.

“I suspect Apple and Alphabet will release a bit of a mystery,” said Aram Senrich, president of the Department of Communications Studies at the American University School of Communications, but we don’t think it’s appropriate for the FCC to step in.

Carr acknowledged suspicions that Apple and Google would remove TikTok from their app stores based on his message. “I think a lot of people are skeptical that’s going to happen,” Carr told Insider, noting that companies may disagree with the letter’s introduction.

And he added, “Or they could say, ‘You’re right. They weren’t explicit about their data flow. But we don’t think this rises to the level of the death penalty.”

But Carr still hopes the letter will reignite the debate over TikTok’s data practices among US officials.

TikTok has faced the threat of a US ban and ban since 2020

For some TikTok users, this moment may evoke a sense of déjà vu.

In late 2020, the Trump administration attempted to ban TikTok from US app stores. Trump later negotiated a compromise with ByteDance in which the company would sell TikTok to a US owner to address data security concerns.

That plan was dissolved after President Biden signed an executive order rescinding Trump’s efforts, writing that the government must assess national security threats from foreign applications through “rigorous evidence-based analysis.” Since then, his administration has been considering a proposed rule change that would give the government greater oversight over applications related to what it considers foreign adversaries, such as China.

Shehzad Qazi, managing director of research firm China Beige Book, told Insider that the White House has largely been at a dead end when it comes to advancing its China policies.

“I don’t have a clear idea of ​​what the FCC commissioner is trying to achieve other than to increase attention because the administration itself is not doing anything here except looking at it endlessly,” Judge said.

A White House spokesperson referred Insider to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when asked about the administration’s position on the availability of TikTok in the United States and whether President Biden agreed with Carr’s position on the company’s data practices. FCC Media Relations Team He declined to comment.

DC outraged following reports that US TikTok user data was accessed in China

While limited political gestures from the Federal Communications Commission and the White House may not be enough to threaten TikTok’s presence in the United States, pressure has been building on the company in recent weeks.

Two days after Carr released his letter to Apple and Google, nine Republican senators sent a different letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew that also cited BuzzFeed News’ reports of access to US TikTok user data in China. Qiu responded to senators’ questions on June 30, writing, “We have not provided US user data to the CCP, and will not, if asked.”

Then on Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner and Vice President Marco Rubio asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether TikTok misled the public about Beijing’s access to US user data. Unlike the FCC, the FTC has exercise jurisdiction on TikTok in the past.

A TikTok spokesperson said in response: “For two years, we’ve talked openly about our work to restrict access to user data across regions, and in our letter to senators last week we were clear about our progress in restricting access further through our work with Oracle.”

TikTok is not available in China, and the CEO and COO are based in Singapore and Los Angeles. But current and former employees previously told Insider that employees at ByteDance’s Beijing office, referred to internally as “HQ,” often have the final say in product decisions for the app.

“It’s a bit of a feeling in the United States where you’re kind of helpless in a lot of the decisions that are made out of China,” a former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships, told Insider. in December.

The main question that worries US lawmakers is whether access to US user data by ByteDance employees in Beijing means the Chinese Communist Party also had access to that data.

“China is engaged in a long-running cyber espionage war with the United States,” Senrich said. “It would be a miracle if Chinese engineers could just have access to that data about American users, if the Chinese government couldn’t get access to it.”

Carr told Insider that he similarly found it hard to believe that the data available to ByteDance employees in China would not subsequently flow to CCP members.

A judge from the China Beige Book told Insider that if the Biden administration decides to consider the issue this year, it could score an easy political victory.

“The move against TikTok could be going downhill for the administration, so it looks like they’re doing something about China,” Kadhi said. “However, it’s hard to say we’ll see any major action anytime soon.”

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