When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew showed up on Capitol Hill this week to testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington, immediately set the tone for the ordeal.
After explicitly calling for civility and decorum in the chamber, McMorris Rodgers came in scorching hot, condemning her guest.
“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” she said, asserting that TikTok is an explicit surveillance apparatus for the Chinese government and that it will never “embrace American values” of freedom, human rights, and innovation. “Your platform should be banned,” she said.
Meeting adjourned? Not so quickly.
Members of the committee spent the next five-plus hours grilling Chew, but not really listening to him. Frequently they talked over him, monologuing more than asking substantive questions, while repeatedly asserting an unyielding position against TikTok for all to see.
Capitol Hill’s tech hearings are typically sensationalist in nature, but this one was even more so: It combined the fear-mongering over social media with fear-mongering about China.
Wifi networks, pupil dilation
Of course, there are serious regulatory questions about TikTok, which is the first foreign social media platform to take hold in the US. But lawmakers including McMorris Rodgers did not show up to the hearing with the focus and discipline necessary to get answers from their witness. If they intend to craft legislation to rein in one of the most popular social media apps in the world, the hearing left them no more informed in their efforts. It did, however, give legislators a chance to try to stump Chew in public with yes-no questions that he couldn’t have really answered in the binary.
Committee members also made bizarre queries about whether TikTok accessed home wifi networks (of course) and whether the app tracks “pupil-dilation” of its users (huh?). In another strange moment, a member of Congress showed what he alleged to be a series of videos promoting suicide, but they included clips—posted on TikTok—of the Hulu show The Bear, along with tweets—which also happened to be posted on TikTok—from the late rapper XXXTentacion.
Of course, when I opened TikTok later in the day, pretty much my entire feed was TikTok users making fun of the very people who want to regulate TikTok out of existence and yet don’t seem to understand how it works.
TikTok is facing intense scrutiny over its data practices
TikTok, to its detriment, has had years to try and allay US concerns and has failed to do so.
The company’s chief problem is that it’s owned by a Chinese firm, ByteDance, and has yet to firewall off US user data from its parent company’s clutches—if that’s even possible.
It’s not entirely clear why TikTok’s data collection processes are uniquely harmful relative to those of US-based internet companies like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, or Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube.
“By reducing the massive stores of personal data collected by all businesses, TikTok included, we will reduce opportunities for all governments, China included, to buy or steal this data,” the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), recently wrote, advocating for a federal data privacy law rather than a TikTok ban.
China possesses troves of data about American citizens and, as EFF notes, can purchase more of it from data brokers. A federal privacy law, rather than a TikTok-specific ban, would be better for every American citizen—especially those who rely on TikTok to communicate, as well as get famous and make money, which are important American pastimes. Still, lawmakers at the March 23 hearing seemed dead set on dealing with TikTok as a one-off problem.
The problem of TikTok’s Chinese ownership
The Biden administration is seeking to force ByteDance to sell the app, which would be an unprecedented move. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) can unwind mergers or force divestment if it deems a critical technology has fallen into the wrong hands and poses a threat to US national security.
While these drastic decisions typically involve critical infrastructure such as semiconductor companies, CFIUS has intervened to force the sale of a consumer technology company once before, when it forced Beijing Kunlun Tech to sell the gay dating app Grindr in 2020.
While Donald Trump began a CFIUS investigation into TikTok during his administration, it ultimately did not act to force ByteDance to sell. Rather, Trump invoked an emergency economic law to try to ban TikTok in the US by forcing web hosts and app stores to drop it—but that failed as the law had a carveout for communications technologies.
Biden has renewed the effort to break apart ByteDance and TikTok during his presidency, with recent reports indicating his nearing a final divestment order, but he also has backed new legislation that would give him increased authority to ban TikTok if he declines to act through CFIUS.
TikTok, however, is not the only social media app with foreign interests. A Saudi prince is a longtime investor in both Twitter and Snapchat. Additionally, Russian oligarchs have invested in both Twitter and Facebook.
Congress wasn’t impressed by TikTok’s CEO
With serious questions remaining about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and how it extends to TikTok’s US users, lawmakers had a responsibility to interrogate Chew about these issues. A recent BuzzFeed News report revealed that despite TikTok’s assurances to the contrary, US user data was accessed by ByteDance engineers in China, which Chew confirmed in the congressional hearing.
Chew also noted that while the company struck a deal last year with Oracle to store TikTok’s US user data, the transition isn’t fully complete, and he couldn’t fully guarantee that China-based employees of ByteDance couldn’t access US user data. This worries lawmakers because of China’s national security law, under which it can compel its country’s companies to share data with it.
But ultimately, Congress wasn’t too interested in hearing from Chew, who until now has not appeared before the body. Its teeth were too sharp, its lust for blood too strong, its hand too visible from across the television screen for anyone to believe there was a genuine interest in dealing with TikTok in a nuanced way. Congress just wants TikTok banned. Whether their constituents would agree is another matter entirely.