Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 6 May 2024

 

TikTok’s Push for Users to Lobby Congress Should Be Investigated, Lawmakers Say

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Against a backdrop of general U.S.-China tensions, antipathy toward Chinese-owned TikTok has emerged as an area of bipartisan agreement among lawmakers. Photo: dado ruvic/Reuters

TikTok should be investigated for its campaign to have users lobby Washington over legislation that could kill the video-sharing app stateside, the bipartisan leaders of a China-focused congressional committee said.

TikTok’s plea to users to contact their representatives, which came amid debate on legislation on the app’s fate, could violate federal law against deceptive business practices and child protection law, the leaders of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party said Thursday in a letter to Federal Trade Commission head Lina Khan. 

“We are gravely concerned that an app controlled by the Chinese Communist Party appears to have the unfettered ability to manipulate the American public, including America’s children,” committee Chairman John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois congressman who is the committee’s top Democrat, wrote to Khan. The two have asked the FTC to open an investigation.

A representative for the FTC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Against a backdrop of general U.S.-China tensions, antipathy toward Chinese-owned TikTok has emerged as an area of bipartisan agreement among lawmakers. The U.S. in April passed legislation that would ban TikTok unless parent company ByteDance sells the app after lawmakers expressed concern that it exposes U.S. users’ data to Chinese authorities. 

TikTok said that it doesn’t believe it has violated the laws referenced by the representatives. The company uses standard “age-gating” processes—a means to stop young people from improperly using an app—that follow FTC guidance, it said. Notifications went to users aged 18 and older, and users had multiple options to dismiss them, TikTok said.

“This letter doesn’t pass the smell test,” TikTok said. “It is disheartening that members of Congress are expressing concern simply because they heard from their own constituents imploring them not to pass a bill trampling on their First Amendment rights.”

The company has previously said it hasn’t shared data with China’s government and wouldn’t do so if asked.

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Thursday’s letter springs from a March row between TikTok and lawmakers. As lawmakers first debated forced divestiture legislation, TikTok sent users a notification warning that they could lose access to the app and a request that they contact lawmakers. 

The campaign overwhelmed some congressional phone lines but apparently backfired, with the deluge of calls prompting one lawmaker to say TikTok had shown it was willing to use users as “foot soldiers.” The House later passed a measure targeting TikTok with a vote of 360-58.

Moolenaar and Krishnamoorthi said that TikTok’s campaign may have illegally deceived users by mischaracterizing the legislation as an outright ban instead of as a forced sale. 

“TikTok pushed a message containing verifiably false information to a reportedly large number of its users regarding the legal implications of the act,” they said. 

Federal law broadly bars businesses from undertaking “deceptive acts.” The lawmakers also asked the FTC to investigate whether TikTok violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by allegedly pushing the political message out to large numbers of children.

China has signaled it won’t allow a forced divestiture of TikTok and ByteDance recently said it won’t sell.

Write to Richard Vanderford at Richard.Vanderford@wsj.com

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