Apple and Google’s continued hosting of TikTok on their app stores, despite US national security concerns about the short-form video app, reflects the tech giants’ “gatekeeper” power and should be made part of any antitrust reviews the app stores may face, a member of the Federal Communications Commission wrote to the Justice Department last week.
The previously unreported letter — sent on Dec. 2 to DOJ antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter and obtained by CNN — said that continuing to make TikTok available on the app stores risks harming consumers, whose personal information US officials have worried may be being fed to the Chinese government.
Beyond possible consumer harm, TikTok’s continued presence on app stores also undercuts Apple and Google’s arguments that their dominance in app distribution leads to better user security and privacy, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wrote in the letter.
It’s the latest attempt by Carr, a top Republican at the FCC, to pressure Apple and Google to remove TikTok. Last month, Carr called for the US government to ban TikTok over the bipartisan concerns that China could wield its influence over TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, to gain access to US user data or to disseminate propaganda and disinformation. Now, Carr is trying a new tack by framing the TikTok matter as an antitrust issue.
“Apple and Google are not exercising their ironclad control over apps for the altruistic or procompetitive purposes that they put forward as defenses to existing antitrust or competition claims,” Carr wrote. “Instead, their conduct shows that those rationales are merely pretextual — talismanic references invoked to shield themselves from liability.”
DOJ’s Antitrust Division should consider that “to the extent that it assesses the reasonableness of Apple’s and Google’s anticompetitive actions,” Carr added.
Google declined to comment. Apple the Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FCC does not regulate app stores or social media, focusing instead on telecommunications and traditional media such as radio and television broadcasters and cable operators. But Carr has become the most vocal commissioner to speak out on TikTok, drawing what he’s said are lessons from the FCC’s own decisions to block Huawei, ZTE and other telecom companies with ties to China from the US market.
His remarks also echo those by prominent lawmakers of both parties, including Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who together lead the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Carr’s call comes as Apple and Google’s critics have increasingly sought to apply the nation’s antitrust laws against the tech giants. Third-party software developers have long alleged that Apple and Google’s app store fees and rules are monopolistic and anticompetitive. A high-profile 2020 lawsuit along those lines brought by Epic Games, the maker of video game “Fortnite,” has so far proven largely unsuccessful, though an appeal is pending.
More recently, Apple’s conservative critics have accused the company of abusing “monopoly” power by allegedly threatening to remove Twitter from its app store — a claim that Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk has made without evidence and that he says has since been resolved thanks to a conversation with Apple CEO Tim Cook. Apple has not commented on Musk’s allegation or purported exchange with Cook.
For years, TikTok has been negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a multi-agency US government panel charged with reviewing the national security implications of foreign investment deals, to arrive at an agreement to allow TikTok to operate in the US market despite the security concerns.
TikTok has said Project Texas, its plan to migrate US user data exclusively to cloud servers hosted by Oracle, is a core part of the solution. Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said at a conference hosted by the New York Times that “no foreign government has asked us for user data before, and if they did, we would say no.”
In congressional testimony, TikTok has said it maintains robust data controls but has sought to sidestep questions about its parent company and declined to stop letting China-based employees access US users’ data.