Chinese-owned TikTok has made headlines over the past few weeks as bipartisan support grows to ban the popular app.
A bipartisan, bicameral trio of lawmakers introduced legislation Dec. 13 aimed at banning TikTok nationwide. The next day, the Senate unanimously passed another bill that would ban the app on government devices.
Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, has been one of the most outspoken critics of TikTok and particularly highlights two national security concerns related to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“One has to do with all of this sensitive, private, nonpublic data that has been accessed from inside Beijing. So for years, TikTok officials told regulators like me and told Congress, ‘Don’t worry about it, none of this data is stored inside China,’” Carr says. “Well, over this past summer, there was a bombshell BuzzFeed News story that showed those representations had been nothing other than gaslighting. BuzzFeed News got a hold of internal TikTok communications that showed, in fact, quote, ‘everything is seen in China.’”
“The second is, once they have that, they can use it for foreign influence, for espionage, other types of campaigns. And in fact, we’re already seeing that,” Carr warns.
Carr joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss a potential TikTok ban in America, how the U.S. government would be able to enact and implement a ban, and how parents can protect their children.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Joining today’s podcast is Brendan Carr. He is a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission and has been one of the most outspoken advocates for banning the popular app TikTok. Commissioner Carr, thank you so much for joining us today.
Brendan Carr: Good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Aschieris: Of course. Now, as I just mentioned, in the past you have been very outspoken about TikTok and you have called for the U.S. government to ban the app. First and foremost, how exactly would the U.S. be able to do that? How would it work for existing users, for example?
Carr: Well, legally where the process sits is the Biden administration’s Treasury Department has an organization there called CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment, and that’s the one that we would expect direct action from. And what they do is they have jurisdiction over TikTok’s purchase of Musical.ly, which has enabled them to have the TikTok operation here in the U.S.
There’s a lot of tools at their disposal that they could do to everything from ban the app outright to force a sale or divestiture of it to an entity that doesn’t have the same types of ties back to the [Chinese Communist Party]. So there’s a lot of options that the Biden administration could take at this point if they choose to go down that path.
Aschieris: And how would it work, I guess, if it’s already on someone’s phone? Would the app store then remove it from their phone or would users have to be, I guess, given the opportunity to delete it? How would that work for people who already have it on their phones?
Carr: There’s a couple different ways that it could work. One way is to remove it from the app stores. In fact, I’ve separately called for Google and Apple to remove it from the app store on their own, which they haven’t done at this point. And there’s precedent for this. India, for example, as a country, has banned TikTok. So there’s ways of doing this that ultimately results in the app not being able to work here anymore.
Aschieris: And I guess also another question, we have TikTok now, and if it is banned, moving forward, how can the U.S. government prevent a similar app from being created?
Carr: Well, it’s a good question. And the way I look at this from the FCC’s perspective is it’s that natural extension of a lot of the work we’ve done in the physical, real world space when it comes to combating threats posed by Communist China.
So, for instance, a couple years ago we started taking action on Huawei and ZTE, insecure network gear, and we’ve done that on a bipartisan basis. And frankly, as good as those steps are in the physical space, unless you pair that with action, the digital space, the app space, then you’re really leaving yourself exposed. So if we have a prohibition on insecure network gear, but yet we’re allowing insecure apps to run on those networks, then we’re leaving ourselves exposed.
We got to pair that physical world bipartisan action with action in the digital space. And TikTok in particular poses just a tremendously unique threat, both from a national security perspective, but also from the perspective of the health and well-being of children.
Aschieris: I actually had national security threats as one of my follow-up questions. If you could expand on that and walk us through some of your concerns regarding TikTok and national security threats as well as you just brought up the well-being of its users.
Carr: Yeah, I mean, in the main, there’s two national security sets of issues here. One has to do with all of this sensitive, private, nonpublic data that has been accessed from inside Beijing. So for years, TikTok officials told regulators like me and told Congress, “Don’t worry about it, none of this data is stored inside China.” Well, over this past summer, there was a bombshell BuzzFeed news story that showed those representations had been nothing other than gaslighting. BuzzFeed News got a hold of internal TikTok communications that showed, in fact, quote, “Everything is seen in China.”
And now, what that means is the funny video that you uploaded, a lot of people just look at TikTok and they say, “What’s the big deal?” OK, they get to see this dance meme or this music video I uploaded. That’s not it at all. That’s just the sheep’s clothing. Underneath it operates as a very sophisticated surveillance technology. It’s potentially pulling search and browsing history, keystroke patterns, potentially biometrics like face prints and voice prints. And again, all that’s going back to Beijing. That’s the first national security concern.
The second is, once they have that, they can use it for foreign influence, for espionage, other types of campaigns. And in fact, we’re already seeing that. In fact, we’re seeing sort of, in some ways, the nightmare scenario already. There was a Forbes story that talked about TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, having officials in Beijing that were either tracking or attempting to, planning to track the location of specific Americans based on their usage of the TikTok app.
Similarly, in the run-up to our most recent midterm elections, there was the CCP’s propaganda arm that was standing up TikTok accounts without disclosing that and using it to target specific U.S. politicians, Republicans and Democrats, for criticism ahead of the midterm elections.
So between location tracking, between all this data that’s going back to Beijing, to using it for foreign influence campaigns with respect to elections, that’s deeply troubling.
But again, that’s separate from the health and well-being of children. So two-thirds, if you can believe it, two-thirds of all teens are on TikTok right now. And for their parents, I think they naturally think that TikTok operates the way that parents and boomers think of social media, which is like Facebook and Twitter and similar things, which is to say you choose a network, it’s your friends, and you’re just sharing news with each other. That is not at all how TikTok works. As soon as you sign up, it’s Beijing in a Beijing-based algorithm that’s feeding content directly to teenagers.
There was a report just out that The New York Times recently cited that showed that accounts set up for 13-year-old girls were shown, within 30 minutes of signing up for the account, eating disorder content, self-harm content. Wall Street Journal did a separate study about unhealthy exercises.
So this content is being fed to your kid, it’s not your kids looking at other kids in their class. And the real tell here is that none of that content, the eating disorder, self-harm, none of that is being shown to kids inside China. The version of the app that’s available there called Douyin shows kids educational material, museum exhibits, science experiments. And again, in the U.S. we’re getting things called the “blackout challenge,” which is content encouraging young kids to strangle themselves to get some sort of euphoric short-term high. And we have seen over a dozen kids in this country do the blackout challenge and ended up killing themselves.
So again, stepping back, there’s the whole national security thing. But I think what needs to truly be emphasized for parents is, this isn’t like Twitter or Facebook where it’s your kids’ friends. This is content coming straight from Beijing that is very harmful.
Aschieris: Yeah. And two points I want to talk more about there is, you brought up two-thirds of teens are on TikTok. That’s a lot of teens. And I think one question I have for you is, how do you get this message of surveillance technology, of location tracking, the threats that we just talked about with TikTok posing toward teenagers and toward Americans more broadly, how do you get that message across to its user base?
Carr: Yeah, there is a degree of apathy. A lot of people even will say, “Well, doesn’t China already have my Social Security number and everything? There’s these [Office of Personnel Management] leaks, there’s these bank leaks, what’s the big deal?” And I’d say, well, it is a big deal, and part of the reason why is the type of data that they’re getting off of TikTok is a level of richness in sophistication that is so far beyond your Social Security number and maybe your bank account information.
They’re layering in there really intimate, detailed knowledges. What do you stop at? What do you pause at? What moves you? And they’re able to add that to potentially that other data set that they’ve stolen. And so it’s a real problem. It’s really, again, sort of scary stuff when you think about the content that is being put right into the ears, right into the eyes of kids.
It’s not just two-thirds of teens, it’s the average user is spending something like more than 90 minutes a day on the application. It is a tremendous amount of news information and data that is going again, outside of parental views, right into the kids.
And the separate other sort of national security thing that we should pause to note is, Beijing has said they want to dominate the world in artificial intelligence or AI by 2030. And their version of artificial intelligence is for authoritarian purposes, for malign purposes. And every single time a U.S. user swipes on TikTok, looks at a paragraph, what you’re really doing is you’re feeding, training, and improving Beijing’s AI.
Aschieris: And I also wanted to ask you about, from the parental standpoint, how do you tell your kids, who will more likely than not be with classmates, be with friends on TikTok, maybe making silly dance videos and not thinking anything of it, how do you, from a parent’s perspective, have that serious talk with your kid? “Hey, you got to get off of this, it’s not good. I know your friends are maybe on it, but I don’t want you to be on it.”
Carr: Yeah. Thankfully, in my particular circumstances, my oldest kid is 9, my youngest is 3, I’ve got three boys. So none of them are old enough to be on there, so I haven’t had to deal with that yet. But yeah, we do have to talk to kids about it. …
There is certainly a degree of parental oversight that is necessary both with this app and with all apps generally. I mean, again, some of these kids are getting harmed through the blackout challenge and otherwise. They’re young, I mean they’re 12 years old or younger, and I think parents really need to step up.
Again, I think, from a parental perspective, it’s this misperception that TikTok is just like Twitter or Facebook and it’s OK—it’s their friends, it’s their network. And it’s completely not that type of application. So we have to a better job of educating parents. And parents, you’re right, have to exert a bit better oversight of where their kids are going on the internet.
Aschieris: And as many of our listeners probably know, and I’m sure you know, Congress is working on this massive spending bill to fund the government. The text of the bill was released early Tuesday morning, it’s more than 4,000 pages long. And it includes the No TikTok on Government Devices Act, which Sen. Josh Hawley introduced, and it was passed unanimously in the Senate last week. Commissioner, are you surprised to see this in the spending package?
Carr: Well, I’m pleased to see it, and frankly, kudos to Sen. Hawley. At least the public reporting is that he negotiated a deal to get this included in the [omnibus bill], and I think that’s great news because it seems to me that while we’re recording here before the omni has passed, it looks like it’s basically a done deal that it will pass with the TikTok ban on federal devices in it.
And that’s a significant win because that’s a bipartisan decision, Republican Democrats saying not just that social media shouldn’t be on federal devices, but TikTok should not be, given the unique national security threats of TikTok. So that’s going to be a very significant win when that gets done.
Of course, it’s not a complete win. We need to now pivot and focus, again, on not just federal devices, but the application nationwide. But frankly, it’s very difficult to square a bipartisan, bicameral decision that TikTok poses a threat with the Biden administration then going ahead and blessing the continued operation of TikTok.
So again, stepping back, the Biden administration Treasury Department right now, it’s empowered to take an action beyond federal devices that deals with the app globally. And I think they should. And what the reporting is, including from Politico, is that right now the Biden administration is roiled in controversy, meaning the national security officials are increasingly speaking out publicly and saying, “Hey, there’s a problem here with TikTok that can’t be addressed through mitigation measures.”
You’ve got the CIA director, [William] Burns, recently saying he has genuine concerns about TikTok. You have FBI Director Chris Wray saying the FBI has serious national security concerns. The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, saying that parents should be concerned. So there’s a lot of officials in the Biden administration right now that are speaking out on the national security side, but we need to make sure that the economic portion of the Biden administration, including the Treasury Department itself, does the right thing here.
Because frankly, this is just a basic IQ test. Do you trust that we can put protections in place to guarantee that Beijing won’t be able to use this app and access the data for nefarious purposes? And if you’re inside the Biden administration, signing off on a deal that lets TikTok continue to operate here, [that] means that you own every single malign conduct that Beijing does through that application. I think that’d be a mistake.
Aschieris: And why do you think, if we’ve seen this pushback, if we’ve seen these warnings coming from the FBI and the CIA, why do you think the Biden administration hasn’t come out with a ban, at least at the government level yet?
Carr: It’s a good question. And as best I can tell, everyone that’s speaking out on this is from the national security side and they’re raising alarms.
What usually happens in D.C. in these types of situations is you have the economic entity—so treasury, for instance; commerce, for instance—that want good trade relations and good economic relations, and they tend to be more hesitant to engage in actions like this. Because standing up to TikTok would be a very significant step. It would be likely that China may try to take some type of measured counter-response. But it is the right thing to do.
But I do think there’s some hesitancy on the economic side and potentially the political side. There’s a lot of Democrats, some Republicans as well, that look to TikTok as a vehicle for reaching out to younger voters. But it’s telling, for instance, when the White House brought in TikTok influencers as some sort of summit—TikTok itself is not allowed inside the White House grounds, on White House devices. So I think that’s a telling example of why we need to step up, why the administration needs to reach a final decision on TikTok and do one that protects our national security.
Aschieris: Yes, I think that is a very good point that you just made, that TikTok is banned from the White House and yet there were, I guess, TikTok stars, you could call them, that came to the White House earlier this year. Commissioner Carr, any final thoughts on this topic before we go?
Carr: Well, look, I think it’s important to keep both pieces in mind. There’s the national security threat, which is all that data going back to Beijing, including feeding and training their artificial intelligence operation, which can be used against us. But there’s an entire separate issue of why parents need to be very concerned about TikTok.
Again, it doesn’t operate like other social media they may be used to. This is content being designed in Beijing by their algorithm, being pushed to teenagers in many cases, and it’s a real problem that we need to take head on here.
Aschieris: Well, Commissioner Carr, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate your insight and look forward to having you back on in the future. Thanks so much.
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