WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla High School students had the opportunity to talk with 5th District Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers about technology, internet access and one particular topic of interest — TikTok.
McMorris Rodgers told students at the “Conversation with Cathy” Town Hall on Tuesday, March 14, that Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s chief executive officer, would testify before Congress next week. She said the video-sharing app, which is based in China, has caused concern in the U.S. about data collection.
“Last week we introduced a bill that would require the app to disclose where the data is being stored,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That’s kind of a beginning step so we can gain an understanding as a people where data is being stored.”
McMorris Rodgers, who is the Energy and Commerce Committee chair, said a bill was recently passed out of committee that would require a disclosure statement to appear when anyone opens the TikTok app.
“When you open the TikTok app it would say, ‘This app has been banned by the federal government (to prevent its employees from using it),’ so you know there are concerns around this app,” McMorris Rodgers said. She said lawmakers’ next steps would include privacy data and security legislation.
“How do we control the data that China would be collecting?” one student asked.
“What we’re proposing — and this is very bipartisan, it passed out of committee last Congress 53-2 — it would mean if an entity is going to collect data on you beyond what they actually need for their own specific purposes relating to that app or business, you would have to be notified if it’s going to be sold to a data program,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Another student asked about age and content restrictions on the app.
“TikTok USA is a very different experience than TikTok in China,” McMorris Rodgers said. “In China even your time on TikTok is limited. It seems to be more educational, focused on science and technology, so those are the kinds of questions we’re going to be asking the CEO when he’s in next week.”
The congresswoman also addressed the importance of access to broadband, especially for students.
“How do you plan to expand public knowledge on government and international issues with rural broadband?” one student asked.
McMorris Rodgers told students that during the pandemic, many students did not have adequate access to the internet, which was needed to attend school virtually.
“We continue to have unserved and underserved regions where people still lack an internet connection,” she said. “So much of our lives are on our phones, whether it’s in school, in businesses or shopping, it’s become basic infrastructure. You want to have electricity and you want to have an internet connection.”
She said the pandemic pointed out the severity of the digital divide and resulted in more federal funding to change that.
“I believe that we should be prioritizing the unserved and that we should be technology-neutral,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Whatever works, whatever is going to best serve the need — sometimes it might be fiber, sometimes a wireless connection, sometimes a satellite connection. I’m working on satellite legislation also that would help facilitate some of that.”
Bill Plucker, the high school’s government teacher, said it was not often that local or state legislators came to speak to students.
“It’s a special opportunity,” Plucker said. “In the 30 years I’ve been here, there’s been four visits. It’s rare.”
McMorris Rodgers’ visit to Walla Walla High School was part of her town hall series in which she is visiting several schools in her congressional district, which covers about the eastern third of the state.
“I always enjoy interacting with the kids and visiting the high schools,” she said. “It’s important for them to have some insights and understanding of what their representative does.”