Chinese influence. Algorithm manipulation. Children’s mental health.
These are some of the topics that lawmakers will raise when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies for the first time before Congress later today, according to aides to Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is taking place as TikTok tries to stamp out the growing bipartisan scrutiny in Washington over its China-based parent company, ByteDance, including concerns that Chinese law could require it to hand over U.S. data if asked. The company is facing growing calls for a U.S. ban, with potential legislation to back it up.
“I think that there is going to be a lot of unity shown,” said one aide to a Democrat on the committee, who added that lawmakers would elevate calls for broader data privacy legislation in addition to zeroing in on TikTok in particular. Another Democratic aide similarly predicted the hearing would be “very bipartisan.”
Chew will try to convince lawmakers that a ban or forced divestiture would be the wrong course of action, and that TikTok’s $1.5 billion investment in its “Project Texas” plan to keep American data stateside, under the watch of Austin-based Oracle, is enough to address security concerns.
“We do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150 million Americans, and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem,” Chew says in a lengthy written testimony released ahead of time.
As it stands, most House Democrats haven’t come out in favor of a ban or divestiture. I’ll be watching today’s hearing to see which lawmakers suggest support for either.
“I haven’t decided for sure whether we should be banning TikTok but it’s certainly something we have to consider,” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, said during a joint Fox News appearance with Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., who says she supports a ban.
The social media company got a major public boost from Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who brought a group of TikTok influencers to Capitol Hill yesterday to rally support for TikTok. The progressive lawmaker described criticism of TikTok as part of a “red scare around China” created by Republicans and called for scrutiny of other U.S. social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Reps. Mark Pocan D-Wis. and Robert Garcia, D-Calif. joined him.
But Bowman’s display of support was unusual among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where TikTok’s problems have snowballed in recent weeks. Back in December I wrote that a U.S. ban of TikTok was “unlikely.” Now, I’m not so sure.
A new bill led by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va. and John Thune, R-S.D. that would allow the Biden administration to take action against technology companies that threaten U.S. national security — including imposing a ban — is quickly picking up steam. Warner told a group of reporters including myself earlier this week that even just the threat of the Chinese government potentially gaining and exploiting access to American data was enough to take action.
“On Huawei, our actions were taken not because of real time exfiltration of data but because of the potential harm to be done,” Warner said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, referring to sweeping restrictions imposed on the Chinese technology company.
The Biden administration has told ByteDance to sell its stake in the popular video app or face a ban in the course of ongoing talks between the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and TikTok.
Still, organizations like the ACLU have raised concerns about First Amendment issues with a ban. Any action against TikTok would face messy legal challenges. And some lawmakers, while not eager to defend the app, worry about giving the government too broad a mandate to punish companies they dislike on national security grounds.
There are legitimate questions about the politics of a ban, too, given the app’s popularity, especially among younger and more liberal voters. Danielle Deiseroth, Data for Progress’ interim executive director, didn’t seem too worried when I asked her about it earlier this week, though.
“Young folks are overwhelmingly concerned about issues like climate change, abortion rights, they’re concerned about economic issues,” she said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have also countered that an American company would likely fill the void if the popular social media app were to disappear from the states. Meta already has its own rival short-form video platform, Instagram Reels.
“If 150 million people go off of TikTok, it’s not like the market is not going to create a replacement,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. said at a press conference at the House GOP retreat in Orlando this week.
The View From TikTok
Chew, who met individually with some members of the committee ahead of today’s hearing and has taken his message directly to TikTok users, says in his written testimony it is “emphatically untrue” that TikTok is “beholden to the Chinese government,” according to his written testimony.
Chew will insist that the company is committed to transparency, keeping teens safe, and protecting U.S. data, and that the platform will remain free from government manipulation. He’ll also insist that a ban would adversely impact small businesses that use the platform for their work.
A Washington Post poll finds that views on U.S. policy toward TikTok are strongly influenced by whether respondents use the app. Daily users overwhelmingly oppose a ban even as a plurality of all adults favor one.