The last several days have given anyone who might have already had qualms about TikTok even more of a reason to be suspicious of the popular video-sharing app owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance.
After telling me in an interview back in August that he suspected a regulatory shoe of some sort would drop soon, for example, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr took his strongest stance yet against the app this week. Specifically, he says that because the app is now so pervasive — more than 200 million downloads in the US — and because there’s also such an acute overhang of national security questions, he’s now calling for an outright ban of TikTok.
The dark side of TikTok
“I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban” on TikTok, Carr told Axios, particularly because of how the app handles the data of US-based users.
Surprise! @AP data that is sensitive and non-public is now accessible by personnel inside China (not excluding CCP members!), including location info, search and browsing history, and keystrokes patterns!!! https://t.co/I5KBVy0lD6
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) October 25, 2022
Even before now, though, the commissioner already seemed to be thinking along those same lines when I spoke with him a couple of months ago — even if he wasn’t ready to call yet for a ban of some sort.
“You’ve already got the military branches that have banned TikTok from their official government devices,” he told me. “I just don’t see how you can be half-pregnant when it comes to the security concerns of TikTok, which is enough of a concern to boot it off military devices. It seems hard to conclude that the exact same military personnel should be able to put it on their personal phones — and be in the same areas as they are when they’re acting in their official capacities.”
This comes after Carr, in June, sent letters to Google and Apple asking them to explain why TikTok remains available for users to download from the companies’ respective App Stores. His letters were motivated largely by news reporting of leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings showing that US user data has been accessed from inside China.
Reporting along those lines, in fact, has also mounted in recent weeks and months.
In a bombshell report in June, for example, Buzzfeed reported that TikTok engineers based in China accessed non-public information on US users like birthdays and phone numbers. The following month, Buzzfeed also reported that ByteDance told employees to push messaging in support of Beijing to US consumers (something that ByteDance has said it didn’t do.)
And in November, Forbes reported that ByteDance planned to collect information about some US users via TikTok.
The stakes here are only continuing to get higher. The US is, for one thing, just days away from midterm elections, and Pew Research data shows that a growing number of Americans are getting their news from the app.
In other developments: TikTok updated its privacy policies in Europe just a few days ago, now adding a clear disclosure that employees in China might view personal data about users in Europe. The chief administrative officer of the US House of Representatives has also urged members of Congress to refrain from using TikTok.
Two members of Congress, meanwhile, have sent letters to Apple and Google similar to the earlier one from Carr. Those new letters ask directly whether Apple or Google will take punitive action against TikTok over its mishandling of user data and privacy — and whether the companies would ever ban the app out of their app marketplaces completely.
Outside of security concerns, the dark side of the app also keeps coming more clearly into focus. A University of Vermont study this week, for example, found that dieting-related trends on TikTok might contribute to eating disorders. A family has also sued the Palm Beach County School District in recent days, alleging the school was negligent in letting kids attempt the TikTok “Skull Breaker” challenge. A group of teenagers has also been reportedly killed in a car crash in Buffalo that might be linked to a TikTok challenge.