Senate building US

TikTok lambasted in Congressional hearing for failure to send representative

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TikTok, the Chinese social media app, has been criticised by prominent lawmakers in the US Senate after declining to send a representative to a congressional hearing into the tech industry’s relationship with China.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s crime and terrorism panel hearing was called by Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican recognised for his scrutiny of Google, Facebook and other tech giants. The hearing was intended as an opportunity to discuss the relationship of the tech industry with the Chinese government: an increasingly contentious issue which has been positioned at the core of the ongoing US-China trade war.

TikTok stated on Monday that it would not send a representative to the hearing at such short notice, although the company remained committed to working with Congress on securing American users’ data, “[promoting] free expression”, and preserving US national security interests. TikTok and Apple were both empty-chaired by the lawmakers, contrasting with Microsoft and Facebook who each sent a representative to the hearing.

In his opening remarks, Hawley warned: “With Apple and TikTok, we see two sides of the same coin when it comes to data security: the danger of Chinese tech platforms’ entry into the US market and the danger of American tech companies’ operations in China.”

He singled out Apple for its “entangled” business practices with China, which he said could “[risk] compromise with authoritarianism”.

However, Hawley reserved his strongest words for TikTok, citing a recent Washington Post report which said that former TikTok employees in the US had been put under pressure from the company’s Chinese HQ to demote content that could be considered damaging to the Chinese government. TikTok has denied that it is influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government. Hawley also questioned whether the company sufficiently protected American users’ data. TikTok has maintained that American users’ data is stored in a facility in Virginia.

“TikTok should answer for these discrepancies. They should answer for the millions of Americans who use their product with no idea of its risks,” Hawley said. “They should have been here today […] they must now appear, under oath, to tell the truth about their company and its ambitions and what they’re doing with our data.”

“We don’t know what China can do with this kind of social data in aggregate, what it tells China about our society […] what does it mean for China to have a window into such users’ social lives? Why would we leave that window open?”

Criticism of TikTok was bipartisan. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn called on TikTok to stop collecting data on underage American users and compared the app to “China’s best detective”, while Democratic Senator Mark Warner said in a statement that there are “credible concerns that TikTok’s moderation efforts reflect the interests and dictates of the Chinese government.”

Launched in 2017, TikTok has quickly become one of the world’s most popular apps, with more than a billion active users. Its users submit short-form video content (often comedic and set to music) and an algorithm promotes or demotes this content based on unknown measures of engagement. Despite its rocketing popularity among young people, TikTok has been increasingly criticised by regulators, lawmakers and campaigners over allegations of censorship and misuse of user data.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the US government had launched a national security review of TikTok parent company ByteDance over its $1bn merger with teen-focused social media app in November 2017. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US is undergoing a review of the merger and is in talks with TikTok about measures that could be taken to prevent a break-up.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – who called for the review in October – welcomed news of the investigation, telling Reuters that it validated “concern that apps like TikTok […] may pose serious risks to millions of Americans and deserve greater scrutiny.” The investigation was also welcomed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who characterised TikTok as a “potential serious threat to [the US].”

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