Attorney General Skrmetti on TikTok’s Refusal to Provide Documents: If a Company’s Behavior Is Sufficiently Egregious, State Law ‘Allows Me to Ask a Court to Ban That Company from Ever Doing Business in Tennessee Again’
Live from Music Row, Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti to the newsmaker line to discuss the amicus brief filed against Chinese-owned TikTok and the possibility of litigation that could outlaw its platform in the state.
Leahy: On the newsmaker line right now, our good friend and, I think the very best state attorney general in the country, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti. Good morning General Skrmetti.
Skrmetti: Good morning. How are you?
Gulbransen: Good morning.
Leahy: We’re glad to have you on, and I know you’re traveling and doing a lot of work around the state. Our lead story at The Tennessee Star. You are leading 46 states to demand that China-based TikTok comply with your multi-state investigation. You’ve asked for records, and they’re not providing them. Tell us about that.
Skrmetti: In any of these big multi-state investigations, we send out investigative requests using some legal tools we have, and in every other case, even when they don’t like it, companies send us the information to send us. In this case, TikTok has sent us almost nothing.
They have taken steps to ensure that evidence is being destroyed as far as we can tell. And what they have given us, they’ve provided it in a format you can’t understand. It looks like it was deliberately made to be unreadable. They have been abstracting in ways that I haven’t seen this from a legitimate business.
Leahy: They’re Chinese owned, and they also have confirmed that TikTok they have not disabled a feature on its internal communication platform that allows the automatic deletion of messages within seven days. According to your own office, why are they such scofflaws toward the duly authorized attorneys general in the United States?
Skrmetti: It’s incredible. When you have all the attorneys general working together as you have here, which is a pretty rare occurrence, that’s a serious signal to a corporation, that they’re under significant scrutiny and that this is a serious investigation.
And every other time that I’ve seen this, even where companies fought tooth and nail and disagreed vigorously with every theory we had about why they were liable, they still produced what they needed to produce, and they still preserved what they needed to preserve.
TikTok is an extreme outlier in my experience, and that’s why we went to the court. Ordinarily, you can resolve these with some conversations, and everybody understands that at the end of the day, they’re going to have to produce what they have to produce, and they grudgingly go along with it.
I think the fact that you have so many states signing onto a brief in a Tennessee state court, which is very unusual, is a strong signal here that this is not an everyday occurrence.
Leahy: Usually, when you see other attorneys general file an amicus brief, it’s usually in cases in federal court. And so you’ve gone to Tennessee state court, they’re joining with the amicus brief to get this information from Chinese-owned TikTok.
The issue here is that they’re collecting data on Americans and may not have the best of intentions for that. A very unusual situation. Where does this whole investigation go now that you’ve asked the court to tell them to produce these documents?
Skrmetti: The court will want them to produce the documents. We’re going to get the documents. Working hard on this for quite some time. Kids have been consulting birds looking at the impact of social media on kids, looking at what exactly it is the company does that’s causing problems.
What we need is transparency with respect to each specific company we’re looking at. And I expect we will likely file a lawsuit. The evidence we get is consistent with what we think we’ll get. And plus the company. Want to resolve this reasonably upfront; we are going to pursue this as far as necessary to protect our kids.
Leahy: This is my personal view, not your view, but my personal view is a TikTok is a tool of the Chinese Communist Party to obtain information about American citizens that they’re going to use in a way that harms our national security.
My personal feeling is that TikTok should be banned from the United States of America. Do you think that is an outcome that might result from some of your investigative work here and your litigation?
Skrmetti: I know we’re not the only ones looking at TikTok. I know that proposals at the federal level of various things. I also know that there’s a provision of Tennessee law that if a company’s behavior is sufficiently egregious, it allows me to ask a court to ban that company from ever doing business in Tennessee again.
And depending on the severity of the conduct in a given case, that may be appropriate. So we’re considering all options. I have a great team working on this nationally. We have a great team working on this from all the different states teaming up. We’re bringing our big guns to this fight.
Leahy: It seems to me then, if we were working towards a path where you as the attorney general of Tennessee could, in essence, bring litigation that would ban TikTok from operating in the state of Tennessee what would happen in the other states? In the United States, if that were the outcome that this ends up having?
Skrmetti: Each state has its own law, its own remedies, and its own lawsuits. And I don’t know whether other states have that capability or not. I suspect many of them do. I’ve never seen that invoked against a significant business interest. Usually, it’s reserved for your little fly-by-night scammers.
So I really don’t know what that world would look like. We’re so early. It’s really hard to predict exactly how that will play out. I just know that we have seen significant harm to kids. It’s all been nationally reported.
If you look at the mental health statistics, we are going to use every tool at our disposal, and I’m gonna use every tool at my disposal to protect our kids. So if that includes pulling out that, that hasn’t really been used we’ll do that. Good thing.
Leahy: Now, personally, this is me talking, not you personally. I’m all in favor of that. You said that this is something in Tennessee that’s been used to stop fly-by-night scammers.
My view on TikTok is that they have used this entertainment angle to become an international, fly-by-night scammer harming the national security of the United States and the welfare of children in America.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.