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TikTok faces growing Republican backlash over security concerns

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Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok is facing growing political backlash in the US as it was sued by the state of Indiana over data security and child safety concerns and banned by multiple Republican state governors from government devices.

A pair of lawsuits filed on Wednesday by Indiana’s Republican attorney-general against the popular short-form video platform, which is owned by Beijing’s ByteDance, alleged that the company had made false claims about its practices. The suits are seeking emergency injunctive relief and civil penalties from TikTok.

In one of the lawsuits, the state claims TikTok had “lured children” on to its platform by suggesting that it only hosted “infrequent/mild” sexual content, profanity, or drug references when the app was actually flooded with such content.

The second lawsuit argues TikTok misled Indiana consumers by suggesting that sensitive personal data it collects on users is protected from the Chinese government and Communist party, when it is not.

The lawsuits come as the social media app is facing mounting scrutiny from US lawmakers over its data practices and the potential threat to national security if private user information is accessible by the Chinese government due to the party-state system — a suggestion the company denies.

For months, TikTok has been working on a national security deal with the US government to address those concerns. This has involved partnering with US cloud software company Oracle to introduce better data protections for American users and more controls over when Chinese staffers have access to that data. However, the deal has yet to be agreed, despite pressure from lawmakers for a timely conclusion.

Separately this week, Texas became the latest state — alongside South Dakota, South Carolina and Maryland — to ban the use of TikTok on government devices, citing the growing “threat of the Chinese Communist party gaining access to critical US information and infrastructure”. 

The bans follow comments by the FBI director Christopher Wray last week, who alleged that the app’s parent company is “controlled by the Chinese government”. This “gives them the ability to control the recommendation algorithm” and “manipulate content”, as well as the ability to collect data for “traditional espionage operations” and conduct other “malicious cyber activity”, Wray said.

Indiana’s attorney-general Todd Rokita in a statement on Wednesday said: “The TikTok app is a malicious and menacing threat unleashed on unsuspecting Indiana consumers by a Chinese company that knows full well the harms it inflicts on users.”

“At the very least, the company owes consumers the truth about the age-appropriateness of its content and the insecurity of the data it collects on users. We hope these lawsuits force TikTok to come clean and change its ways.”

TikTok on Wednesday said “safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority”, and that it had built “youth wellbeing” into its policies. It also expressed “disappointment” about the decisions by state agencies, adding that these were “largely fuelled by misinformation about our company”.

“We are also confident that we’re on a path in our negotiations with the US government to fully satisfy all reasonable US national security concerns, and we have already made significant strides toward implementing those solutions,” the company said.

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