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FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr Calls TikTok ‘A Serious National Security Threat’

Defending his call for Google and Apple to remove TikTok, Carr says he is not concerned by dancing videos but by the "sensitive information" being collected.

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr says he’s not “attempting to do a remake of ­Footloose” in his crusade to get Apple and Google to remove Chinese media giant ByteDance’s immensely popular TikTok platform from their app stores. A product of the 1980s and ’90s, Carr grew up on a steady diet of MTV and is well-acquainted with the 1984 movie, starring Kevin Bacon, about a small town that banned dancing and rock music.

“The primary concern is not the videos and the content and the dancing,” says Carr, who’s about to mark his fifth year as commissioner. “TikTok has disclosed that it’s getting biometrics, face prints, voice prints, location date, search and growing history, and keystroke patterns. It’s all that sensitive information that I’m very concerned about being accessed in China.”

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Although the FCC has no jurisdiction over TikTok and other streaming platforms, Carr is using his clout as commissioner to make a federal case of his concerns, and he says the issue has gained bipartisan support in Congress.

For Carr, 43, national security trumps commerce, which may come as a major disappointment to some in the recorded-music industry who have increasingly come to rely on TikTok as a valuable marketing tool.

But Carr sees himself as part of a new generation of Republicans who don’t quite fit the “fundamentalist libertarian” label established by their predecessors — at least when it comes to business. “Sometimes we need to impose beneficial regulations to promote the public interest,” he says. This more hands-on approach has implications for the music business beyond TikTok. Carr wants the FCC to consider geotargeting technology that would allow terrestrial radio stations to split signals and aim programming and content to users based on their location. In general, he favors “leveling the playing field” for stations so they can compete more effectively against streaming services.

Carr, who grew up in Northern Virginia listening to Vanilla Ice — “Maybe I’ve come to regret that a little bit,” he says — and Bon Jovi on WRQX (then Mix 107.3) in Washington, D.C. (and still lives in the area with his wife and three young boys), characterizes his rise over 15 years from a member of the FCC’s “intern pen” to the commission’s top job as a “Forrest Gump-style career.”

In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed the graduate of Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law to the FCC, where Carr promptly followed GOP doctrine and voted to kill net neutrality, which prevents internet service providers from slowing down or shutting out online content.

Appearing through Zoom, Carr elaborated on his TikTok stance and discussed Google and Apple’s reactions to his request to remove the app. He also shared his perspective on payola, as it applies to both radio and streaming, as well as the complexities involved in enabling terrestrial radio to better compete in a market where digital platforms now dominate.

In June, you asked Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores based on a report that TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, had access to U.S. users’ data. Have they responded?

TikTok had been asked for years: “Is U.S. user data — nonpublic, sensitive data — being accessed from inside China?” And for years, they’ve offered a bunch of assurances, ranging from “this data does not exist inside China” to “it’s only shared with protections in place.” The BuzzFeed news story [revealed] internal communications that said “everything is seen inside of China.” TikTok has disclosed that it’s getting biometrics, face prints, voice prints, location date, search and browsing history, keystroke patterns. It’s all that sensitive information that I’m very concerned about being accessed in China. There are serious national security concerns there. Google did respond — credit to them — with a largely indecipherable word salad. The bottom line is that they are not removing TikTok from the Google Play store. As of the date of this discussion, Apple has not provided a substantive response, other than indicating they anticipate having a response at some point. And I expect that they will do that.

The issue has really taken off on a bipartisan basis. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner [Virginia] has said publicly that TikTok “scares the dickens” out of him and has asked the Federal Trade Commission to launch an immediate investigation. The primary concern is not the videos and the content and the dancing — I’m not attempting to do a sort of remake of Footloose.

Federal Communications Commission
The seal of the Federal Communications Commission hangs inside the hearing room at the FCC headquarters February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/GI

The FCC has no authority over internet platforms like TikTok. If Apple and Google ignore you, what are your next real options?

If they choose not to apply their app store policies to TikTok, then it becomes even more important for the government to take action — whether that is through the Federal Trade Commission proceeding that Sens. Mark Warner [D-Va.] and Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] have called for, or through the Biden administration’s pending Treasury and Commerce Department-led inquiries into TikTok and similar apps. The ball will be squarely in the federal government’s court to take swift and appropriate action to promote our national security.

Why go after TikTok and not Google and Facebook, which have larger and more heavily documented issues of sharing users’ private information?

I have expressed concern about the baseline level of data that’s being pulled from every single application. Smartphones now have barometric pressure sensors. They know when your car door closes and what floor you’re going to in an elevator. Congress is looking at some privacy bills, which would measure some of those baseline privacy concerns from any app. TikTok is unique in that it has all those problems plus misrepresentation about data being accessed from inside China, which is a problem.

The music industry has become reliant on TikTok as a marketing tool. How much does that concern you?

A handful of people are saying, “Look, I make my living on TikTok. Please don’t suggest that this thing should be banned.” And I feel for that consequence. But once we reach the decision that this is a serious national security threat, we have to take action, [despite] the short-term economic consequences that could result.

Terrestrial radio faces intense competition from streaming and SiriusXM, among other platforms. Advertising has dropped. How healthy is the industry?

There’s no question that radio has a very bright future, but there are business-model and technical challenges. On the FM side, there has never been more competition in the audio space. The older your technology, the heavier the FCC regulates it. With heavy regulation come compliance costs and a cost on your freedom to innovate. As radio stations are competing with digital, in many cases, they’re doing so with one hand tied behind their back. I was in a small town — Powell, Wyo., — and I went to the local radio station. It was basically a Dell laptop that was spinning music piped in from some big city. The reason, in part, is the economic challenges of investing in live and local talent there. But just a short ways away, in Cody, Wyo., there was a thriving broadcaster that wanted to invest in that Powell station and bring [in] the live, local talent. So, the Dell laptop would lose its job.

But that can’t happen, right?

FCC has regulations that say, [in order] to promote diversity of use, the owner of the Cody station can’t also own the Powell station. [FCC rules prevent the same broadcast company from owning more than 50% of the radio stations in a small broadcast market.] To me, that’s backward and one example of how we have these regulations that may have made sense decades ago, but now are holding back terrestrial radio. A streaming platform can get a nationwide footprint virtually overnight, while it is illegal to do the equivalent of that on the terrestrial side. The FCC’s role is to make sure they compete in something approaching a much more level playing field.

What’s one way the FCC can make that happen?

Over the past decade or so, there has been a big swing of local ad dollars from radio to the big tech platforms. One reason for that is those platforms can target their advertising by geography. The FCC is considering allowing radio stations to engage in that geotargeting of ads. I’m not going to say it will move the needle drastically, but it could be one way of addressing that movement of ad dollars. Some in the radio industry have pushed back very strongly against the idea. They like the current model. But there are dozens of stations, particularly the smaller ones, that say they’d love the chance to give it a shot.

The music business pays influencers on TikTok, Instagram and other social media to promote artists and songs. That’s legal for a streaming service, but not for radio. Is there inequity there?

Absolutely. [Equity] has to be the touchstone of a regulatory framework. If we are singling out radio for less freedom, less economic opportunities than other competitive platforms, that’s a bad thing. The problem with a lot of regulations in D.C. is that some are from the Federal Trade Commission, some are from the Department of Justice and some are FCC. Everything tends to be siloed, as opposed to understanding the competition that’s taking place [as a whole]. And advertising rules in those different silos are skewing the field in a way they shouldn’t. It may be difficult to fix, however, because an FCC law applies only to X industry, FTC law applies only to Y industry and so on.

Does the FCC consider radio payola, which still exists in various forms, a problem?

I’m getting flashbacks to that line from Star Wars: “That’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time.” Payola is obviously an area where we still have rules in the books, but it’s not an area that has been active at the FCC in quite a while.

Radio hasn’t paid musical performers royalties since 1909, despite aggressive lobbying by the recording industry. The broadcasters’ lobby is just too strong. Will that ever change?

We certainly have to strike the right balance here between those competing interests. We have to have a regimen that makes sense so radio stations can be successful and the artists can be successful. But this is predominantly an issue driven out of Congress rather than at the FCC.

What has been the effect of the FCC’s decision to eliminate net neutrality?

It has been very positive. I remember the sturm und drang and the protesters who said it was going to be the end of the internet as we know it. It ended up being the biggest Y2K-type moment we’ve ever had. Speeds have tripled since that decision; we broke new records for bringing people across the digital divide; competition increased. Someone could make an argument that was going to happen regardless, and I would say, “OK, but that wasn’t what we were told in 2017.” I’m pretty confident it was not a mistake.

President Biden’s nominee for the FCC, Gigi Sohn, is an outspoken net neutrality supporter. Her nomination has been pending in the Senate since December. Could net neutrality eventually come back?

The Obama-era version of net neutrality is all over but the yelling and the fundraising. The recent Supreme Court Environment Protection Agency decision [which limited the EPA’s ability to make regulations about greenhouse gases] means agencies like the FCC may be getting less leeway from courts when it comes to deciding if we have the authority to do things that were not very clearly directed for us to do by Congress.

You were President Trump’s nominee. Given his general divisiveness and the recent scrutiny of his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, how concerned are you about how this association will affect your career?

It doesn’t concern me at all. One of the things that’s beneficial about these jobs as an appointee confirmed by the Senate is I’m not an elected official. I don’t have to fundraise or have donors or financial backers in any way. There’s a lot of freedom that comes from that.