House panel requests FTC investigate if TikTok violated child protection act

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The leaders of a bipartisan panel that is focused on China have sent a letter asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether TikTok has violated child protection laws in its efforts to stop the United States from banning the app.

The letter, obtained by The Hill and first reported by NBC News, is addressed to FTC Chair Lina Khan and asks the organization to examine if the app violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), or Section 5 of the FTC Act, when it sent pop-up notifications to users that requested personal information and asked them to contact Congress.

Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party John Moolenarr (Mich.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said TikTok’s messaging was sent to young children in the classroom and other minors under the age of 13.

“The solicitation of children using deceptive and inflammatory information resulted in at least one instance of threatened self-harm, with a Congressional office reporting a call from a child threatening suicide,” the letter said.

The letter follows the passage of the Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. Congress worked to pass the controversial legislation because the app’s owner, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. President Biden signed the bill, meaning ByteDance will have up to a year to sell the app or face a ban in U.S. app stores.

While the bill was being discussed, TikTok sent the pop-up message to its U.S. users urging them to call Congress and oppose the bill and to “stop a TikTok shutdown.”

“Speak up now—before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” the message said. “This will damage millions of businesses, destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country, and deny artists an audience.”

In the letter, the lawmakers said they are 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.”

According to the FTC’s website, the COPPA rule does not require “operators of general audience sites to investigate the ages of visitors to their sites or services.” TikTok said it only sent the notification to users who were over the age of 18 and users had “multiple options to dismiss” the notification.

Section 5 of the FTC Act declares unfair or deceptive acts unlawful. According to a letter on the FTC’s policy statement on deception, TikTok’s notification would be deemed unlawful if it is “likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to the product or service.” TikTok said it has not violated Section 5 as users were receiving the notification because they were already users of the app to begin with.

“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,” a spokesperson for TikTok said in a statement to The Hill.

Krishnamoorthi declined to comment further. The Hill has reached out to Moolenaar and the FTC.

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