Updated Mar 24, 2023, 6:56am EDT

TikTok is in serious danger after a brutal Congressional hearing

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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The News

The fire under TikTok in Washington is smoldering after members from both parties in the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled the company’s CEO Shou Zi Chew on data privacy and security, Chinese influence, and children’s safety for five hours on Thursday.

Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. set the tone early by calling for a ban on TikTok. She used her questions to aggressively push Chew on TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance and its relationship to the Chinese Communist Party and took little satisfaction from his answers.

“Your platform should be banned,” she said. “I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”

Nor did Chew get any relief from the other side of the aisle. New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the committee’s top Democrat, immediately dismissed his claim that they could keep user information away from ByteDance — and Chinese intelligence — through TikTok’s plan to house data in the U.S. with Oracle, which they’ve dubbed “Project Texas.”

“I still believe that the Beijing communist government will control and have the ability to influence what you do,” Pallone said.

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Morgan's view

The hearing was the strongest sign yet of momentum on Capitol Hill for legislation to address national security concerns associated with the popular social media app — including, quite possibly, a ban.

Chew came to Capitol Hill — his first appearance before Congress — with the intention of trying to dispel concerns about TikTok and the possibility of Chinese government influence, and to make the case that the app is a critical piece of American culture that enables free expression and allows small businesses to flourish.

“Our app is a place where people can be creative and curious and where close to five million American businesses, mostly small businesses, go to find new customers and to fuel their growth,” he said.

There was little sign any of his arguments took. He faced a room full of hostile lawmakers, who grilled him on everything from teens accessing disturbing content, to a violent video on the app targeting the members of the committee themselves. Members were especially concerned about a 2017 Chinese security law that could compel the company to surrender user data.

Several members remarked that Chew had united the committee in opposition to TikTok and described his answers as evasive or unsatisfactory.


“TikTok did not do itself favors,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who sponsors one of several competing bills that would restrict its U.S. operations, told Semafor.

The result is a Congress that looks to have more appetite than ever to take action against the app because of — rather than in spite of — its wide popularity in the U.S.

“When you celebrate the 150 million American users on TikTok, it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act,” McMorris Rodgers said.

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The View From TikTok

“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” a TikTok spokesperson said after the hearing.

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Know More

There are a handful of bills in Congress that would address TikTok or other foreign tech companies that raise related concerns.


The proposal with the most momentum — and backing from the White House — is a bill  from Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va. and John Thune, R-S.D. that would create a new framework for evaluating threats from foreign countries. It would give the President the power to take action against technology platforms tied to foreign adversaries that access data on more than 1 million Americans, including by forcing divestment or preventing American companies from doing business with them.

“I don't think there is an appetite for a TikTok specific bill, but there is a desire to have a more systemic solution to the range of threats that can arise from foreign technologies in the U.S. market,” said Emily Kilcrease, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

That bill doesn’t yet have a House counterpart, though Warner has been engaging with Republicans on the House side. Even some members who have been skeptical of past proposals have signaled support for Warner and Thune’s legislation.

“I think that’s directionally probably the most thoughtful piece of legislation than the versions I’ve seen in the House which I don’t think will pass legal scrutiny,” Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass. told Semafor, noting she is “waiting to see if there is a companion bill that’s introduced in the House, how this hearing affects that.”

Another bill from House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul, R-Texas advanced along party lines in recent weeks would allow the president to impose sanctions on foreign-controlled companies that transmit U.S. data to China when it raises national security concerns.

Finally, a bipartisan, bicameral bill from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. would ban U.S. transactions with TikTok or its parent company.

“I think you see bipartisan concern here with what’s happening on TikTok, especially what’s happening to the data for Americans,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. told reporters Thursday, endorsing legislative action without specifying a particular bill. “I’d let the committees do their work and see what production comes out when it gets done.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said that a ban of TikTok should be considered, but also hasn’t endorsed any specific legislation.

Action is not a certainty, however. The Biden administration is still in negotiations with the company and recently told ByteDance to sell its stake in the popular video app.

The Warner/Thune bill might not apply to TikTok if the company’s negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. are still ongoing or have already concluded by the time it becomes law.

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Room for Disagreement

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., one of the few members on Capitol Hill defending TikTok, told Semafor it was wrong to focus on the company merely because of its Chinese ownership. Many of the issues raised by members in the hearing — including privacy, addiction, and mental health — apply to other social media platforms too.

“American tech companies have been harmful to the American people as well,” he said.

Some members have suggested concerns about TikTok might end up channeled into a broader bill that addresses data privacy issues for domestic and foreign companies alike.

The leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a proposal last year called the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. A new version is expected to be reintroduced at some point in the new Congress.

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  • Bloomberg explores how TikTok became a major national security topic of discussion in Washington.
  • A Chinese government official said Beijing would “firmly oppose” an effort by the U.S. to force a sale of TikTok, the Wall Street Journal reported.