TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew failed to make a successful appearance before the House Energy and Trade Committee on Thursday.
He failed to reassure skeptical members of Congress that his hugely popular social media platform can isolate itself from Chinese government interference. Nor has he convinced them that TikTok has done enough to combat misinformation, protect children from harmful material, or remove content that violates its code of conduct. It didn’t help his cause when Republican Representative Kat Cammack of Florida played a video shows an animated pistol firing at a post, threatening the committee and its chair. The video had been on TikTok for 41 days and was removed during the hearing.
Chew’s company was berated for more than five hours, a sign of the rare bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done about TikTok, but what exactly Congress or the Biden administration can or should do remains unclear.
It also became clear that while TikTok is currently the target of government investigations, largely due to growing concerns about China’s power and influence, concerns about user privacy, misinformation and impact on children are not unique to TikTok.
Malicious practices are ingrained into the business models of social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and YouTube. Increasing numbers of state legislatures and court cases are trying to force companies to take more responsibility for developing safer products. Congress, too, should exercise its regulatory authority more broadly to protect consumers, not just TikTok users.
In fact, TikTok is similar to other social media apps that suck up personal information. wrote Ron DeibertDirector of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto analyzes the TikTok app. He added that “most social media apps are inherently unacceptably invasive, treat users as raw material for monitoring personal data, and offer little transparency about their data-sharing practices,” necessitating comprehensive privacy laws.
Despite several years of debate, Congress has failed to enact legislation to protect online privacy. Lawmakers came close to US privacy law last year, but there were questions about whether the law would overrule California’s strict privacy law — which would be a mistake. Members of the House of Representatives said Thursday they will attempt to pass the law again this year, which is good, but they should catch up with California and not reclaim the state’s leading privacy rules.
The immediate question before federal lawmakers is how to address the national security concerns raised by TikTok’s ties to China. The app was developed by Chinese internet technology company ByteDance. Federal authorities have sounded the alarm because Chinese law requires tech companies to give the government access to user data. There are also concerns that TikTok could be used as a tool to spread propaganda or disinformation, given the platform’s reach — it has 150 million users, or nearly half the US population — and its powerful algorithm.
The Biden administration has threatened to ban TikTok unless the app’s Chinese owners sell their stakes.
Chew tried to argue that TikTok is a private company independent of the Chinese government and could build a firewall to ensure there is no foreign interference. But his argument was undermined by an announcement by China’s Commerce Ministry on Thursday that it would oppose the forced sale. China regards technology as a national security issue and has the right under Chinese law to block its export.
With a sale off the table, the Biden administration has limited options. A total ban would raise significant technical and legal questions, including whether cutting off an extremely common way of speaking would violate the 1st Amendment. What will the US do after TikTok? Turn off all popular Chinese or foreign owned apps?
Also, simply banning TikTok doesn’t solve the bigger problem. Regulations and policies that protect Americans’ online privacy and limit the potential for harm to users young and old are long overdue.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-03-24/tiktok-social-media-congress-privacy Editorial: Congress is anti-TikTok, but others are bad too