A ‘Most Bipartisan’ Dressing Down of TikTok cbsnews.com

Caitlin Yilek, CBS News:

In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, CEO Shou Zi Chew struggled to reassure lawmakers that the massively popular social video app doesn’t pose a risk to its 150 million users nor share user data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But he admitted that TikTok had collected location data on U.S. users in the past, and said some historical data is still stored in servers that could be accessed by engineers from ByteDance, its parent company based in China.

Members of both parties spent hours denouncing TikTok’s data collection practices and painting it as a tool used by the Chinese government to track and spy on Americans. Before lawmakers even began their questioning, GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the committee’s chair, said they “do not trust that TikTok will ever embrace American values.”

I had today’s hearing playing in the background and it was a tense and frustrating back-and-forth. As is typical for these kinds of hearings, lawmakers mostly soapboxed relentlessly, asked complicated questions they framed as a simple matter of yes or no, and did not let Chew finish answering. The word “communist” was used with the same frequency and tone as the word “fuck” in “Uncut Gems”. It was very clear, from the outset, that most committee members were not much interested in investigating, but were instead trying to justify a forthcoming likely vote to ban TikTok from the United States. Perhaps appropriately, a representative named McCarthy supports a TikTok ban.

Chew, meanwhile, played the same role as any tech company CEO who has sat in that chair before him, and either reiterated talking points or said he would get back to lawmakers with more complete answers. One notable awkward moment was when Rep. Debbie Lesko, of Arizona, asked Chew whether he agreed that the Chinese government had persecuted Uyghurs, and he would not answer, though he did associate it with his “concern[s] about all accounts of human rights abuse”. If you scrunch that up a bit, it kind of looks like a “yes”, but only kind of.

The concerns raised were, as many members acknowledged, bipartisan and (nearly) universal, but they differed in focus. Republican representatives were overwhelmingly concerned about the company’s Chinese government connections, but also questioned its ability to effectively moderate users’ posts. They repeatedly cited how effective the TikTok’s moderation responses were in places like Singapore, with its stricter drug laws, and how much faster moderators work on Douyin, its Chinese-market equivalent. These were glowing endorsements of more interference by private companies in users’ posts coming from Republican lawmakers. Meanwhile, Democrats often used their time to interrogate Chew about the effects of TikTok on mental and physical health, particularly in children. During a break in the hearing, Geoffrey Fowler of the Washington Post lamented that the topics were getting all mixed up and there was little substantive questioning.

There were rare moments of clarity and productive questioning; Rep. Lori Trahan provided one of them:

Rep. Trahan: In 2021, the U.K.’s Age Appropriate Design Code went into effect, mandating 15 standards that companies like you need to follow to protect children on your platform. You still operate in the United Kingdom, which means you should be in compliance with this code. So my question is simple: will you commit to extending the protections currently afforded children in the U.K. to the millions of kids and teens who use your app here, in the United States?

Chew: We take the safety of the younger users on our platform very seriously —

Rep. Trahan: This is a good way to prove it.

For me, this exchange underscored how important it is for lawmakers to set meaningful standards. All social media companies are going to maximize their user base within legal limits. TikTok, like other platforms, sets restrictions for users who are old enough to create accounts but still minors. But, like every other platform, it will not willingly reduce its user base — why would it?

Ahead of the hearing, Rep. Trahan authored a thoughtful op-ed in the Boston Globe noting, among other things, the reason why TikTok is under a unique spotlight:

Finally, the American people have to understand how TikTok went from a relatively obscure part of the national security conversation to a full-blown proxy as tensions escalate with China. The short answer: Big Tech corporations in America.

Rep. Trahan is not wrong. The national security concerns raised during the hearing were mostly hypothetical, often speculating about algorithmic manipulation and covert influence campaigns. The most concrete fears were borne of a Chinese national security law which compels companies based there to surreptitiously hand over user data when demanded by the government. One representative called TikTok the equivalent of a Chinese spy in Americans’ pockets.

As a Canadian watching this hearing, I could not help but raise an eyebrow. The U.S. has similar policies but dominates the tech industry. Is just about every other hardware and software product an American spy in the pockets of users worldwide? I take it this is not a moral objection but a political one. It is grossly oversimplifying the situation to claim that U.S. lawmakers are using their power to assist domestic businesses confronting a large and foreign competitor, but it is notable how much time is being spent confronting TikTok specifically instead of building a privacy framework that would limit its risk. After all, a good and worthwhile national privacy law would also kneecap many Silicon Valley giants. Again, this is only one component of a very complex picture, but it is worth mentioning.

It does appear U.S. lawmakers are heading full-speed toward voting for a TikTok ban or forced divestment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says there would be numerous legal challenges should banishment be on the table.

As mentioned repeatedly today, a “Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media” in the Australian parliament produced a report — PDF download, not viewable inline — which concluded that TikTok “can no longer be accurately described as a private enterprise”. It is on my reading list. If it is as claimed, it will be more comprehensive than anything from this hearing.