the future of TikTok in the United States threatens to split the country in two. Again. This has been made clear in the country’s capital, Washington DC, during the last two days. While last Wednesday a group of influential creators crowded at the gates of the Capitol requesting the maintenance of the Chinese application, which could be banned, this Thursday, its executive director, Shou Zi Chew,has testified in Congress in a complicated and tense debate with lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The reason? The growing concern about the possibility of the short video tool being exploited by China, either for the collection of data from citizens or for the development of disinformation campaigns orchestrated from Beijing. A possibility that has caused Republicans and Democrats to go hand in hand during the session and share most of the arguments. There were no ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops’.
“Your platform must be banned,” he settled, as soon as the hearing started, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, president of the Committee. The Republican stressed that “TikTok collects all possible data” and that, in addition, “the Chinese Communist Party can use this information to manipulate American citizens.”
Rodgers made it clear that nothing, absolutely nothing, that the platform does to alleviate the concerns of the Government and citizens, will prevent the application from being considered “a technological weapon” that can break national security. Not even the removal of the ‘app’ from all US ‘smartphones’: “We do not trust that TikTok will ever adopt American values. The values of freedom, human rights and innovation».
Chew defended himself by referring to all the moves the Chinese app has made recently in order to protect young users and made it clear that the tool does not and would not share data with the Chinese government. “ByteDance (TikTok parent) is not an agent for China or any other country,” the executive remarked.
During his initial appearance, Chew made a special point of all the moves TikTok has made recently to ensure data security for US citizens. At the beginning of the year, the implementation of the Texas Project, which is already starting to work, and promises that all the information from Internet users settled in the country will remain exclusively in the United States. The executors: the national cloud services company Oracle and the United States Digital Service, which is a federal entity. The company of Chinese origin would also be willing to share information about its content recommendation system and its code.
Chew’s words they did not convince the bulk of legislators. Many tried to highlight the relationship of Bytedance, the parent company, with the Chinese Communist Party, referring to the alleged ties that unite some of the technology executives with the Government of Beijing.
The recent statements by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce did not help either, which indicated this Thursday that the country would oppose a forced sale of shares owned by Chinese investors, which is precisely what the Biden Administration hopes to achieve. Chew responded by stating that TikTok is “a global company” that is headquartered in the United States and Singapore and that only 20% of its shareholders are Chinese.
“I still believe that the communist government in Beijing will continue to control and have the ability to influence what you do,” New Jersey Democratic lawmaker Frank Pallone said of the app’s plans. “While TikTok videos provide a fun new way for people to express their creativity and enjoy the videos of others, the platform also threatens the health, privacy, and safety of the American people,” the legislator continued. Pallone, in turn, made it clear that he is not “convinced that the benefits (of TikTok) outweigh the threats it poses to Americans in its current form.”
The Committee also took advantage of the hearing to request the development of new legislation that guarantees the privacy of American users, something that, evidently, would also affect the business of American ‘big tech’, which continues to be the most influential globally.
Pallone asked Chew to commit to ban ads directed to people under 17 and the sale of marketing data to third parties; as well as information regarding health and location. Something Chew couldn’t commit to. “I don’t think what we collect is more than most players in the industry,” said the executive, indirectly referring to tech giants like Meta or Google. The executive also explained that, since 2020, he has not collected exact location data from Internet users.
“Their technology leads to death”
During the hearing, the legislators also repeatedly expressed their concern about the influence that the social network has on the health of users, especially adolescents. Republican Bob Latta questioned Chew about the blackout challenge, content that went viral on TikTok last year and invited users to suffocate until they practically lost consciousness.
Among those attending the hearing was the family of Chase Nasca, a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide last February, allegedly because of the viral content posted on the application. “Her technology from her is literally leading to death,” warned lawmaker Gus Bilirakis.
“I am devastated by these cases,” Chew replied, noting that the app works with experts in various fields to try to prevent these cases from recurring and noted that “most users” have a positive experience when they use the app. “We are testing some policies together with experts to understand certain content that is not inherently harmful, like extreme fitness, for example, but that should not be seen too much,” the executive said after the fact.
Several videos were also shown in which users could be seen turning to TikTok to share content intended to promote suicide or violence. It was pointed out that the platform was being actively used for drug trafficking and the network’s algorithm was accused of silencing minorities, such as activists from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the United States or the Uyghur Muslim community in China.
Among the recordings that were shared was a post showing a loaded gun and containing threats against Committee members due to a possible ban on the app. “He expects us to believe that he’s capable of keeping the data, privacy and security of 150 million Americans safe when he can’t even protect the people in this room,” said Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla.
the democrat dilemma
Whether or not the app stays on US phones continues to divide US politics despite the united front shown by lawmakers during the hearing. Especially within the Democratic party, which is heavily dependent on the young vote ahead of the next presidential election, scheduled for 2024.
And it is that TikTok is not only a tool that can help reach this type of voter, it is also the favorite application of many adolescents and twenty-somethings in the country. Currently, the ‘app’ has, in the United States alone, 150 million users, close to half of the population has it downloaded to their ‘smartphone’. The country is its main international market outside of China, where the platform is known as Douyin.
Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce and a Democrat, made it clear in statements to the Bloomberg agency just a month ago what the disappearance of the ‘app’ could cause for her party: “(The ban) would literally make us lose all minor voters 35 years, forever. And this idea, that of breaking with the party of current President Joe Biden, is already beginning to fly over the heads of some users. “It would be difficult to support a candidate who would take away something that is so integral to the direction we are taking as a society,” Baedri Nichole, owner of a Columbus, Ohio bakery, said at the gates of the Capitol during the rally last Wednesday. , who uses TikTok to advertise their products.