Should the United States end up in a new “cold war” with China, an early frontier will be the battle over TikTok’s data practices and ownership.
That was made apparent during Thursday morning’s hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—referred to repeatedly as the “most bipartisan” group in Congress—for which TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was invited to testify about his megapopular app’s data and safety standards. Although lawmakers’ queries spanned a broad range of topics, including teen suicides, platform promotion of violence and drugs, and censorship of Black TikTokkers, the core focus was all on China. What data does TikTok collect from U.S.-based users, especially its overwhelmingly young audience? Does that data end up with employees of TikTok’s China-based parent corporation, ByteDance? And from there: Can the Chinese Communist Party spy on vulnerable Americans?
“From the data it collects to the content it controls, TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life,” the committee’s chair, GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said in her opening statement. “It’s been said it is like allowing the Soviet Union the power to produce Saturday morning cartoons during the Cold War, but much more powerful and much more dangerous.”
There were no pulled punches throughout the hearing, nor did Chew seem able to assuage Congress’ concerns about the myriad China-related issues with his app. The words communist and spying and access were used a lot. The stakes, to hear it from committee members, appeared to be of immediate urgency. At one point, Pennsylvania Rep. John Joyce deemed TikTok “the spy in Americans’ pockets” and “a company that cannot be trusted.”
Rodgers detailed the allegations that have been raised against TikTok over time: the deep data logging; the connections with the Chinese government, through CCP members employed at ByteDance as well as alleged coding backdoors; media reports of ByteDance and TikTok employees spying on Americans. But above all, Rodgers said, the biggest issue was that “we do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values—values for freedom, human rights, and innovation. … Your platform should be banned.”
Not all committee members echoed the ban call, but they were unanimous in agreeing that certain steps had to be taken: that ByteDance should divest from TikTok’s U.S. operations, that Congress should pass a data-privacy and -protection bill, that there needs to be increased transparency from TikTok regarding how it protects user data, especially from teenage TikTokkers. No one was under the impression that “Project Texas”—TikTok’s $1.5 billion effort to keep U.S. users’ data in the country, subject to independent review and government oversight—would be sufficient on its own. Despite this, Chew continued citing the initiative and promised that when Project Texas concludes, there will be no risk of Chinese access to Americans’ data. The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, said outright that he was not convinced Project Texas would get lawmakers to back off from TikTok scrutiny.
Throughout the hearing, representatives from both parties pursued the question of not if the CCP has explicit influence over TikTok and its operations, but how much influence it has. Texas Rep. Michael Burgess asked Chew whether the CCP’s opposition to a ByteDance sale of TikTok would prevent a U.S.-mandated divestiture, or whether ByteDance officials helped to “prepare” him for this hearing. Chew responded that his phone was full of messages offering well wishes and unsolicited advice from all over. California Rep. Anna Eshoo then asked how Chew could promise that U.S. data China had already held in previous years will be moved to U.S.-exclusive storage. Chew claimed he’s “seen no evidence” China still holds this data. “I find that preposterous!” Eshoo retorted. Ohio Rep. Bob Latta asked about China’s laws coercing companies to adhere to strict CCP demands, and how that could affect the ways TikTok shares and promotes videos. “Like many companies, we rely on a global workforce,” Chew replied. While the interrogators often cited reporting from outlets like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and utilized individual TikToks as visual cues, nobody seemed to provide new evidence that substantively added to already-extant public records.
For all the emphasis on ByteDance in particular, the committee didn’t seem too concerned about the corporation’s other U.S. products. If they were inclined to mention another ByteDance app, it was most often Douyin, China’s TikTok equivalent. North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson wanted to know if TikTok and Douyin were “connected,” and if Douyin could access U.S. data. Chew could only promise that both apps would be completely firewalled from each other once Project Texas was finished.
Every other possible China angle was addressed, however: who wrote TikTok’s source code, does Chew “disagree” with the CCP when it says ByteDance should retain TikTok ownership, what kinds of compensation did he earn from TikTok and ByteDance, is TikTok meant to serve as a publisher of CCP propaganda, what did Chew think of a former employee’s claim that “everything is seen in China.” Chew was given room only for short responses before lawmakers would interrupt with yet another question; the demand was for the CEO to answer committee queries with only a “yes” or “no,” instead of waffling or talking around details. The suspicion and hostility were pronounced. “You are not trusted here,” California Rep. Jay Obernolte sneered. “You remind me a lot of Mark Zuckerberg, who I said reminded me of Fred Astaire: a good dancer with words,” said California Rep. Tony Cárdenas. “A lot of your answers are a bit nebulous.”
In essence, while some politicians brought nuanced and interesting questions, for the most part the TikTok hearing was a chance for China-hawk U.S. lawmakers to thump their chests. Beneath the probing, often-thoughtful questions about TikTok’s uniquely time-sucking algorithm and its effects on users, there was a clear message that this was meant to be a public statement about China, a demonstration of how the U.S. will tackle potentially hostile foreign entities in the coming years. The committee did not overlook the fact that many of TikTok’s purported data practices are very similar to those of American social media companies’—a point Chew often brought up—but it made clear that if it took an aggressive stance toward such data surveillance now, this was because of the platform’s country of origin. Data-privacy violations are one thing, but Chinese data-privacy violations are another.
“TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate you,” said Rep. Rodgers, making it known early that there was little Chew could say to change her mind. Chew was there to get kicked around. Everyone—even members of Congress—has fun with TikTok.