“A real and imminent threat,” “your technology is literally leading to death,” “a weapon to spy on you.” The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, faced Thursday in his appearance before the House of Representatives a series of tough questions and comments from U.S. lawmakers, supporters of banning the video-sharing app, which they consider a threat to U.S. national security as well as harmful to minors who use it.
Shou’s expected appearance came as Congress considers various bills to ban the social media platform used by more than 150 million Americans — half of the country’s population, and the vast majority of them under the age of 35. Washington’s misgivings about TikTok reveal a larger showdown between China and the United States over the power of technology and the scrutiny of public authorities on the platform. With his appearance, Shou sought to address the growing debate over whether to ban the app in the United States.
Throughout the hearing, held before the Energy and Commerce Committee, congresspeople repeatedly raised questions about the security concerns raised by the platform subsidiary of China’s ByteDance. They are concerned that the platform could use its software to spy on U.S. citizens. In December it was revealed that employees of the social network had accessed the data of two journalists and their relatives as part of an internal investigation into an alleged leak, and now the Department of Justice is investigating the case.
Lawmakers also raise the possibility that the platform can share the data of its U.S. users with the Chinese government, as well as that it can censor or direct its videos in such a way that their content is favorable to Beijing’s positions on issues such as Taiwan. Moreover, they worry that TikTok does not sufficiently protect its many underage users, nor those with mental health problems. 20% of its content, according to U.S. representatives, is “misinformation.”
The company, which has launched a public relations campaign to present itself as a benevolent company that distributes entertainment content and takes precautions to protect its users, responded that it has invested more than $1.5 billion in the development of what it calls the “Texas Project”, by which the American computer software company Oracle will store in U.S. servers the data of users in the country.
Shou assured that the company will close the data warehouses it had until now in Virginia and in Singapore. He stressed that, “when Project Texas is fully up and running,” engineers in China will not be able to access U.S. data. But he admitted that, in the meantime, it is still possible.
The TikTok executive assured that the company has taken measures to prevent teenagers from being exposed to harmful content; it has put in place, he detailed, mechanisms to reduce the time young people spend within the application. The legislators reminded him — as pointed out by the teenage users themselves — that these are merely “recommendations” and that these controls are easy to circumvent.
Faced with other questions, such as the nationality of the parent company ByteDance or the sale of its data, he was deliberately vague: “It is a global company,” “we do not sell to data brokers now.” Asked about videos shared on the app that encourage drug use, and why such content is not shown in other countries where TikTok has a presence, such as Singapore, he indicated that the social network operates in “the reality of the country we are operating in” and in Singapore the laws against drugs are “very strict.”
Some congresspeople showed him videos available on the platform inciting harmful behavior; one of them threatened the committee’s own chairwoman, Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “This is a blatant display of how vulnerable TikTok users are,” said Florida lawmaker Kat Cammack.
If Shou was on a mission to persuade members of Congress of the company’s goodwill, and to convey a message that any attempt to ban the social network would violate the First Amendment, which protects the right to free speech, he failed. Lawmakers were already unwilling to be persuaded, and over the course of the four and a half hours their skepticism and anger toward the CEO only seemed to increase. “You are one of the few people able to unite this committee,” noted Democratic Congressman Tony Cardenas, in “that we all share our mistrust of TikTok.”
It did not help matters that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce released a statement hours before the hearing began opposing any possible sale of the platform and assuring that it will have the final say: “Forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States. If the news is true, China will firmly oppose it.” Several lawmakers alluded to that statement to link the social network to the government in Beijing.
“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more,” Rodgers noted at the start of the hearing. “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values, values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” he added.
Animosity toward the platform created by ByteDance has been growing since the days when the network simply broadcast short videos of dances and jokes. Transformed into an emporium that generates large advertising and marketing revenues — the company’s figures are not public, since it is not listed on the stock exchange — and to which millions of Americans turn as a primary source of information, suspicions on both sides of the political spectrum have only increased exponentially at the same pace as relations between Washington and Beijing, now two rival powers, have deteriorated.
The U.S. government has banned the social network from its terminals and computer systems. Last week, TikTok claimed to have received a notice from the Biden administration warning that it must sever its ties to ByteDance and sell itself to other non-Chinese owners to be allowed to continue its operations in the United States. In the House of Representatives, Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would give President Joe Biden powers to shut down the platform. In the Senate, Democrat Mark Warner and Republican John Thune have introduced their own proposal, which has the support of the White House and lawmakers from both parties. Such a measure would give Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo the power to ban the social media site.
It is unclear whether the U.S. government would go so far as to ban TikTok. Three years ago, the administration of Republican Donald Trump already raised that possibility, only to rule it out. In the case of a sale, the Chinese owners would have to give their approval. Enforcing a ban would be complicated, both from a legal point of view — Shou alluded to the U.S. First Amendment — and from the point of view of the very loyal users, who would not have a positive reaction.
Democrats themselves have made the app one of their avenues for trying to connect with young voters. “Restricting access to a speech platform that is used by millions of Americans every day would set a dangerous precedent for regulating our digital public sphere more broadly,” denounced Democratic lawmaker Jamaal Bowman at a press conference Wednesday.
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