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Lawmakers call on ESPN to drop TikTok sponsorships

Two lawmakers are calling on ESPN to drop TikTok as a sponsor for its content after the social media platform backed halftime shows for recent NCAA college football games. 

Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) sent a letter to ESPN CEO James Pitaro on Monday to ask him for information about ESPN’s decision-making process surrounding the inclusion of TikTok as a sponsor. 

Semafor first reported the letter. 

More than a dozen states have taken action to ban TikTok on state government-issued devices in light of concerns about data security on the platform. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, and some lawmakers have expressed concerns that users’ data on the platform could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

The app was also banned on devices issued by the federal government as part of the $1.7 trillion omnibus government funding package passed last month. 

Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi write in the letter that TikTok poses a “significant threat” to U.S. national security, and ESPN’s choice to allow TikTok to sponsor the football bowl games’ halftime shows “raises serious questions about ESPN corporate decision-making.” 

They said no Chinese company is entirely private because of China’s 2017 law that requires all citizens and businesses to assist in “intelligent work,” including data sharing. 

They said TikTok poses a danger in tracking users’ cell phone location, browsing history and key personal data and with its algorithm and content moderation allowing the CCP to use videos for political purposes, supporting politicians who are close to the party and creating divisions in the United States. 

A TikTok spokesperson said they are “disappointed” that Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi sent the letter without being briefed on the company’s “comprehensive” plans to address national security concerns. They said the letter has many inaccuracies.

“We would welcome the opportunity to share how we are addressing their concerns and familiarize them with the basics of our corporate structure and our policies,” they said.

A spokesperson also said TikTok is not directly or indirectly controlled by the CCP. They said the company does not track user locations or browsing history, and users are not required to use their real name.

They also said anyone on the platform can easily find content criticizing the Chinese government, including on subjects that Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi mentioned in their letter as being banned.

TikTok has previously denied that any user data would be shared with the Chinese government and said the company is working with the federal government to improve its data protection policies. 

Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi requested Pitaro respond to the questions in their letter by Jan. 31. They asked about the vetting process ESPN uses to review possible corporate sponsors for its content and if it was aware that the federal government considers TikTok to be a national security threat. 

They also asked Pitaro to commit to ending ESPN’s relationship with TikTok, ByteDance and any other Chinese company that the federal government determines to pose a national security threat. 

The Hill has reached out to ESPN for comment.

Updated at 10:05 a.m.

Tags ByteDance Chinese Communist Party data security ESPN Mike Gallagher Mike Gallagher Raja Krishnamoorthi Raja Krishnamoorthi TikTok

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