Top Commerce Republicans grill TikTok parent company

Top Commerce Republicans grill TikTok parent company
© Greg Nash

Two key Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday grilled TikTok's parent company over data privacy concerns and its ties to China.

In the letter to ByteDance, ranking member Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Top Commerce Republicans grill TikTok parent company Action on driverless cars hits speed bump as Congress focuses on pandemic MORE (R-Ore.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Top Commerce Republicans grill TikTok parent company Hillicon Valley: House Dems include .6 billion for mail-in voting in stimulus bill | Uber in discussions to acquire GrubHub | Trump backs effort to reopen California Tesla plant MORE (R-Wash.), the ranking member of the panel's consumer protection subcommittee, pressed the Chinese-based company about potential violations of federal law governing safeguards for children online and data sharing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

ByteDance and TikTok agreed to settle charges that one of its predecessors, Musical.ly, violated the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Developers of apps geared toward children cannot collect personally identifiable information on users under the age of 13 without consent from parents or legal guardians.

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As part of that settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, ByteDance paid a $5.7 million fee and agreed to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information on TikTok and to delete any information about users identified as under 13 on the short-form video platform.

ByteDance purchased Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with TikTok, which it already owned.

However, concerns remain about data privacy for children.

Walden and McMorris Rodgers pointed to a complaint by 20 children's and consumer advocacy groups filed with the FTC alleging that TikTok violated the privacy commitments made in the settlement.

The complaint identifies videos posted by children under the age of 13 still on the platform.

It also raises concerns over a specific service the company developed for users under 13, TikTok for Younger Users.

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The complaint alleges that a child could delete that account and create one over 13 with a fake birthday.

The lawmaker's letter also brings up concerns that TikTok user data could be obtained by the CCP.

Much of that concern is tied to a 2017 Chinese law that requires Chinese companies to comply with data requests for state intelligence work. 

While ByteDance is headquartered and operates out of Beijing, the company claims it is incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

TikTok has continually rebuffed claims from lawmakers that the company presents a security risk, and there is no public evidence to suggest that the Chinese government has any access to the data of U.S. users.

The company has also insisted that it does not cooperate with the Chinese government, pointing out that it stores data on Americans in the U.S. with a backup in Singapore.

The letter poses a series of questions about COPPA compliance, data privacy and corporate governance.

The lawmakers are asking for response no later than June 5.

"Congress has significant concerns over TikTok’s data practices, including whether TikTok continues to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and whether TikTok shares American user’s information with the Chinese Communist Party,” they wrote.

A TikTok spokesperson denied the allegations in the letter.

"While we think the concerns are unfounded, we understand them and are continuing to further strengthen our safeguards while increasing our dialogue with lawmakers to help explain our policies," they said in a statement to The Hill.

The letter comes as TikTok's popularity, especially among children and teens, continues to skyrocket globally.

The app has been download well over 100 million times in the U.S. and has seen increased growth as many Americans stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.