Mr. Chew goes to Washington; the battle for TikToks existence

Shou Zi Chew, the chief executive of TikTok, testified before Congress this week. Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) from Washington started by recognizing herself for a 5-minute tirade about all TikToks transgressions, alleged and real. Ranking member Frank Pallone (D) New Jersey started his criticism broadening to all of Big Tech. While there is an escalating distrust of many Social Media platforms, TikToks connections with the Chinese Community Party make it a prime target of politicians looking to make an example.

While this article is about the issues brought up in the hearing, which I agree are real issues, I also believe this hearing shows the dysfunction of our government. This is a bi-partisan issue this committee is exploring. This was a high-profile forum and as such certainly allows Members of Congress to make public statements or raise concerns related to the issue at hand. Though to attack an invited guest and their company in opening statements with no real questions or stated goal regarding the witness, is a disservice to the process.

Committee meetings serve the purpose of allowing Members of Congress to gather information, hear expert opinions, and consider legislative proposals related to a particular issue or topic. This session was about Chinese ownership of TikTok with respect to control of the data and the content displayed to users of the app. More broadly, it was to further discussion and debate over the RESTRICT Act, the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act, and revisions to Section 230 which governs content on social media platforms. In general, it seemed like this hearing was less about hearing and more about Congress members being seen and heard.

TikTok, A social media app

TikTok is a short-form video app made available in the US in 2017, in which more than 150 million users subscribe to other users’ postings, search for interesting topics, and get suggestions for other videos to watch based on their subscriptions, searches, and other demographic and location information the app collects. Douyin, as the app is known in China, is not the same app though it shares source code. This data is governed by software code and algorithms just like every other social media platform. These platforms exist to make money and profit though the code and algorithms can also be written to lean in a direction socially, culturally, or politically.

Note that TikTok Inc., a US-based subsidiary of ByteDance, was established in 2018 to oversee operations in the US and has since gained wide use among multiple demographics. It is March of 2023, 5 years later that we are having congressional hearings about it. Even with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) providing recommendations on the review of Chinese ownership of companies, TikTok still flourished without hinder until July 2020 when then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned possible security concerns. No mention of a government oversight failure was made during this hearing.

TikToks parent company, ByteDance, is a Chinese company and the source of TikTok technology. TikTok has always been owned by ByteDance. As recent as this week, the Chinese government has stated ByteDance technology is under export control and thus, would require approval from the Chinese government for any foreign transactions. The Chinese government and specifically the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) maintain strict control over many Chinese tech companies. They possess golden shares with a golden vote in companies including ByteDance. The Chinese government exerts control and has the final determining vote using these shares. TikTok is at least influenced by this and at most, controlled by this.

Governments have their own agenda and it’s well documented that the Chinese and US Governments have diverse and at many times opposing agendas. With China’s own directives compelling Chinese companies to support the Chinese government and make their company data available to them, it is difficult to see how TikTok is not beholden to its parent ByteDance, and ByteDance’s legal responsibilities to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Government. Mr. Chew did not respond to several questions regarding the CCP and their involvement in TikTok or even if any CCP members or associates helped prepare him for the hearing.

Mr. Chew did his best politician deflection and did not answer several questions. He did describe many activities that TikTok is taking to “firewall” off data from ByteDance and the CCP. “Project Texas”, as TikTok refers to it, is quite detailed as to how the data at rest will be controlled. Though when the underlying software that creates and accesses that data is created and controlled in China, a firewall on where the data is stored is simply window dressing.

There is also a more general issue with TikTok and other social media companies. As for-profit entities, they make money when users stay on their platforms watching more videos. Human nature is attracted to shocking, disturbing, or captivating material that by its nature grabs our attention. We get better with age and experience at turning away or limiting our exposure to this material. But the risks it poses to teens and children along with posts involving misinformation and adverse material are concerning to many.

TikTok Future

TikTok has worked with a group of federal agencies known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) on its Project Texas plan. The CFIUS was formed by the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) as an inter-agency committee to review foreign investments in US companies that have potential national security risks. While the plan proposed by TikTok has oversight from government officials and identifies several areas that will prevent the Chinese government from having access to U.S. user data or meddling with content recommendations, it still doesn’t deal with the legal issues of ownership, influence, and control by a Chinese company.

Talk that the Biden administration wants TikTok’s Chinese ownership to sell the app or face a possible ban has emerged and was at least part of the reaction by the Chinese government this week. While US companies and apps are banned in China, the Chinese government has threatened to retaliate if TikTok is banned in the US. Some see this as pure hypocrisy as US apps are banned in China. Though the US culture is based on individual freedoms and the Chinese culture is based on the government over the individual. In China’s general view, it is the US that could be seen as hypocritical.

Over 20 states, educational institutions, and even the US Congress have enacted bans on TikTok in recent months. Multiple congressional bills have been presented that would give Congress and the White House authority to deal with TikTok, including a potential ban. Though we still see congress members and other politicians using the platform with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) using TikTok on the hearing day to highlight her message that it’s about more than TikTok.

Many of the specific allegations against TikTok are against ByteDance, its parent company. It was ByteDance employees in 2020 who accessed data on American journalists and public figures. The data included information such as IP Addresses, location data, device information, and browsing history. The data was reportedly collected as part of an effort by the Chinese government to monitor and track individuals deemed to be a threat to Chinese national security.

Questions

Is it possible that a US company with Chinese ownership could separate itself far enough to not be influenced or subject to Chinese law and control? Technically this is possible. Questions remain if operationally this is possible. It is clear from today’s committee hearing that none of the committee members believe that can be achieved.

Is it possible that a social media company can balance its pursuit of profit over the well-being of its users? It also seemed that none of the committee believe that was possible with the regulations available today.

With multiple bills floating through congress and debate about amending current laws such as Section 230, it appears this will be a frequent topic throughout 2023. It is also likely that there is no single solution. Government oversight is more art than science sometimes and for now, the artists are still seeking the proper model in which to create a picture.

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