Mar 22, 2023
TikTok’s CEO Is Set to Enter a Washington Fight He Can’t Win
(Bloomberg) -- TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company, and the national security risk that could pose to the viral video app’s users, have drawn most of the attention ahead of the CEO’s testimony to Congress. But Chief Executive Officer Shou Chew is prepared for a variety of questions, including about kids’ mental health, from a House committee Thursday.
The mobile app’s 150 million users in the US and the strength of its content-recommendation engine mean any infraction is viewed as a potential societal threat. Lawmakers have spent the better part of this year warning about the risks posed by a platform intended for short, often silly videos. In Thursday’s US House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, they’ll have one person at whom they can direct those fears. Here’s what you need to know.
What are the toughest questions TikTok’s CEO is prepared for?
Chew will directly address persistent allegations that TikTok could be used to spy on Americans or to push Chinese Communist Party propaganda — both accusations that US lawmakers and government agencies have made against the app. This is territory where Chew feels confident in TikTok’s argument, according to people familiar with the matter, keeping focus on the facts of TikTok’s extensive security measures.
But the hearing has the potential to get emotional. Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican, plans to confront Chew with stories of children who died by suicide, or after taking one fentanyl pill bought online or attempting a dangerous stunt seen on the popular social media app, whose users skew young, according to senior committee aides. Chew will be pressed to answer for the role TikTok played in those tragedies, the aides said.
TikTok has recently taken steps to counter the perception that it’s dangerous or addictive for kids, announcing default time limits for young users and more parental controls. According to Chew’s prepared remarks, he will tell the committee TikTok “will never stop looking for ways to improve” protections for teenagers. He also plans to ask the committee for more specific guidance on what issues the company needs to address to win back trust, according to one person close to the company.
Read More: TikTok Takes Its Fight to the Court of Public Opinion
Of course, TikTok isn’t the only platform under fire for its impact on mental health. McMorris Rodgers previously confronted other social media executives with the same concerns, telling Google’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey in a 2021 hearing that their platforms are her “biggest fear as a parent.”
Is there anything Chew can say to win over lawmakers?
Probably not. TikTok has widely publicized the details of its $1.5 billion investment in data security, known as Project Texas, to insulate US users from its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance Ltd. The Biden administration has already rejected those efforts as insufficient to prevent Chinese authorities from demanding US data or influencing the algorithm that customizes each person’s video feed. People familiar with that decision said the US has told ByteDance to sell its shares in TikTok or face a ban.
Read More: US Demands TikTok’s Chinese Owners Sell Stakes or Face Ban
ByteDance has previously been caught deceiving users and regulators. The Justice Department is investigating the company’s admission that it surveilled US journalists, accessing their IP addresses and personal data to find out their sources. Reports about TikTok’s practice of “heating” some content to boost its reach have also unnerved lawmakers who are concerned about Chinese authorities pushing their worldview on US users via the popular app.
Even when TikTok executives have met with lawmakers in private, they’ve been met with deep skepticism.
“I think he can only say what the CCP allows him to say,” Gary Palmer, an Alabama Republican on the committee who is also a member of GOP leadership, said in reference to the Chinese Communist Party. “I anticipate when he comes in, he’s going to try to be the face of an independent, private company, and I just don’t think that’s a fact.”
Aren’t other social media apps just as bad?
It’s true that other social media companies have been criticized for their impact on the mental health of young people and for collecting personal data to feed their advertising businesses. Chew is expected to argue that TikTok is doing more than any other technology company to protect user information. While that assertion is probably true, the app’s Chinese ownership means that all the usual data-tracking practices come with national security implications, especially at a time when China-US relations are particularly strained.
Read More: China-Bashing Is One Thing Divided US Congress Can Agree On
Some lawmakers have argued that user data gathered by American tech companies could also end up in the hands of adversarial nations via data brokers — firms that license and sell personal information collected by another platform. Several states are considering laws to restrict this business, and privacy advocates have urged US Congress to do the same. But that argument doesn’t help TikTok’s case.
What power does this congressional committee have to change things?
The Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over technology, so any related legislation gets referred to this panel. Other committees have weighed in on the national security threat from TikTok, and the House Foreign Affairs panel already voted on one GOP-only bill to ban the app in the US.
Look for members of Energy and Commerce on Thursday to reference a comprehensive data-privacy bill that received bipartisan support in the committee last year but failed to get traction in the Senate. Some Democrats have been uneasy about singling out just one popular app, and say Congress should instead set stricter rules for any company that gathers and uses consumer data for commercial purposes.
This is a useful argument for TikTok, since it drags the sins of other social media back into the spotlight.
Is the US actually going to ban TikTok?
There are four bills that propose different ways to forbid TikTok in the US, but only one of those has the support of the White House. That Senate proposal, from Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and South Dakota Republican John Thune, stops short of mandating a ban. It would give the Commerce Secretary the legal authority to evaluate the national security risk from any technology owned by an adversary like China, Russia or Iran and then take necessary steps to mitigate that danger.
Warner’s bill has strong bipartisan support in the Democratic-led Senate, but it would still need to pass the GOP-led House. Some Republicans have said they’d be open to Warner’s approach, but would like to have some binding requirement for the administration to act.
Read More: One TikTok Bill Has the Most Support Right Now. Here’s Why.
Even if that bill becomes law, it would take at least several months to put this new regulatory structure in place. That would push the decision to ban TikTok close to the 2024 presidential election, when Democrats don’t want to alienate the young voters who skew liberal.
TikTok’s security plan won’t be enough to ensure it gets to continue operating in the US, people familiar with the matter have said. That means the president might instead try to unilaterally block the app in the US unless ByteDance sells it shares. Yet without express authority from Congress to take that action, it could get struck down in court, like former President Donald Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok in 2020.
Does TikTok have any allies in Washington?
Several advocacy groups have expressed concern that banning TikTok could curb Americans’ freedom of expression. The American Civil Liberties Union said several of Congress’s proposals risk violating the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantee.
TikTok’s most powerful advocates are its devoted users, and their organizing power against any politician who threatens their favorite app. A group of nearly three dozen widely followed TikTok creators will be on Capitol Hill Wednesday to share what the platform has meant to them and their careers.
“It’s the job of elected representatives to listen to their constituents,” said Tony Weaver Jr., a creator who posts mental health-focused anime videos for his 698,100 followers, at a media event arranged by the company in DC. “If a person were to vote to ban TikTok, I genuinely just don’t think they’re listening to the voices of their constituents. There are a lot of people that use TikTok as a sole kind of lifeline for their business.”
In a TikTok video — of course — Chew this week took his argument directly to the app’s fans. He asked people to leave comments describing what they love about TikTok and what they want their elected representatives to know. The post has more than 80,000 comments.
“You’ve got this Shou,” said one user with 2.4 million followers. “Let me know if you need any support. Always happy to help this incredible app.”
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