View from Washington: TikTok fails to convince lawmakers

The Chinese-owned social media platform has taken another hammering from US politicians.

It was brutal. It may prove fatal.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew’s testimony to the US House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday (March 23) felt unconvincing and poorly prepared. Other technology executives have performed equally evasively on Capitol Hill. The difference was that they were not at hearings fighting for their companies’ lives.

Unless the business can at least be sold to a non-Chinese, preferably US owner, Washington lawmakers seem increasingly hell-bent on banning TikTok. If they do so, other countries might follow suit, with several having already banned its installation on government devices, including the UK. For its part, Beijing itself has just said it could block any sale on technology transfer grounds, muddying the situation still further.

“Mr Chew, welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” declared Buddy Carter, a Republican representative for Georgia. “We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security, we care about our economy and we sure-as-heck care about our children.”

Carter’s comments captured the mood. Regardless of party, lawmaker after lawmaker slammed TikTok, the only nuance being the few that spoke in a tone, though not intent, of more sorrow than anger.

Committee members were chiefly concerned that TikTok’s ownership, under its Chinese parent Bytedance, presents two threats: one, that private data on US citizens might leak to China and secret access could be demanded by the Beijing government under its own security laws; and two, that the sophisticated algorithms underpinning TikTok, some of which it shares with its Chinese sister Douyin, could be manipulated to conduct some form of social cyberwarfare against the US.

However, criticisms around these issues sometimes gave way to lawmakers’ additional worries about the damaging effects of social media generally, and particularly on children given TikTok is younger users’ preferred platform. Here, there was an overarching sense that after so many discussions with the main players, they are now fed up and the platform made for a convenient (though perhaps still deserving) whipping boy.

“This is the 32nd hearing we have held about privacy and Big Tech,” said Indiana Republican representative Greg Pence. “Each hearing I’ve been part of, we’ve heard the same stories about our constituents’ experiences and the same promises from Big Tech to do better.”

The meeting was always going to be confrontational, although just how confrontational it ultimately was surprised many. Alongside increasingly widespread calls for general social media regulation, Chew’s company is indeed at the centre of accelerating geopolitical tensions between the US and China over technology.

The Biden administration has already voiced support for a piece of proposed legislation with cross-party support, the RESTRICT Act, that would give the government powers to curtail or shut down companies that use technology from six countries seen as having adversarial relationships with the US, China among them (the others are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela),

Passing the act and applying it to TikTok would be seen as a further escalation of ‘decoupling’, even confirmation of a new Cold War as it would come on top of the recent US restrictions on China’s access to advanced semiconductor devices and manufacturing.

A delicate balance, an olive branch and some further hard commitments were needed. Yet Chew arrived on Capitol Hill with nothing really new to calm the fractious mood. He was evasive in many of his answers about whether Bytedance should even be considered a Chinese company, its management chain, and how far its exposure to Chinese security law could extend with regard to the data TikTok gathers.

TikTok has spent $1.5bn (£1.2bn) on a programme called Project Texas. It says this will ring-fence US users’ data on local servers, preventing almost all foreign access. It has developed the system with Oracle, and all accompanying source code will also be subject to third-party validation. This system already captures current usage (legacy data is being deleted or transferred from servers in Virginia in the US and in Singapore, Chew said, in a process due to complete by the end of this year).

But while Project Texas has been central to a big TikTok charm offensive towards politicians and journalists for a while now, as well as its discussions with US regulators on foreign investment, the committee wanted to know more about both its functionality and its viability.

Several members surrendered portions of their own questioning time to California Republican representative Jay Olbernolte, a member with a background in both coding and AI – and Chew struggled with all of the issues he raised, deferring responses.

It is true that Chew experienced the US political committee process at close to its worst. There was a lot of grandstanding and speechifying by members, many attempts to force him into simple ‘yes or no’ responses on what were complex issues, and frequent instances where he was talked out from members’ time allocations before he could respond. This was often an organised whipping - the full woodshed.

But that much was on the cards, and there were also far too many times when Chew faced predictable questions for which he could have prepared comprehensively, even lacking basic data about, for example, the type and numbers of clips that have been historically taken down, data that TikTok already says its audits.

Then, Chew and his company’s strategy before the meeting also seems to have backfired. Posting his own TikTok clip noting that the platform has exceeded 150 million US users was judged by some members as merely further evidence that something needs to be done about the risks they believe the platform presents to society and US national security. Getting a group of well-known TikTok influencers to lobby outside the Capitol also seems only to have riled the lawmakers.

But what may prove the session’s signature moment came when Kat Cammack, a Republican Florida representative, screened a video live from TikTok to question the quality of its content moderation. It showed a gun being loaded and fired, the date of the committee session and the name of its chair.

So soon after the meeting, there is already the inevitable online debate as to whether the clip was a real January 6-style threat or a cynical false-flag operation. But that is almost moot given that the clip had apparently been on TikTok uncaptured for 41 days.

TikTok is not going to be closed down tomorrow. Probably not for some time. If lawmakers do decide to legislate for that – and they will almost certainly have to if the company is not sold on by Bytedance (or cannot be) – there are many hurdles and nuances to consider. Not the least of those is the US Constitution’s protection for freedom of speech in its First Amendment. But you’d be hard pressed to argue that yesterday’s session made that eventuality any less likely.

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