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News / Northwest

McMorris Rodgers leads grilling of TikTok CEO as lawmakers call for data privacy law

By Orion Donovan-Smith, , The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. (TNS),
Published: March 24, 2023, 8:04am

Mar. 23—WASHINGTON — In a marathon hearing on Thursday, the CEO of TikTok struggled to assuage lawmakers’ concerns that the massively popular video app’s ties to the Chinese government make it a threat to U.S. national security.

For more than five hours, CEO Shou Chew faced searing questions from Democrats and Republicans alike about the app’s impact on children and teens, what it does with users’ data and its potential as a vector for dangerous trends and misinformation. He found virtually no sympathy from lawmakers, who were unsatisfied with the company’s plan to relocate data on its 150 million American users to servers in Texas.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for a ban on TikTok and broader data privacy legislation that would limit how tech companies collect and use Americans’ personal information.

“TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” McMorris Rodgers said. “A ban is only a short-term way to address TikTok. And a data privacy bill is the only way to stop TikTok from ever happening again in the United States.”

Saying repeatedly that data privacy is “an industry-wide challenge,” Chew expressed some support for a federal law but insisted TikTok is already doing more than its competitors to address those concerns.

“With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” Chew said, referring to a 2018 scandal over a British consulting firm that collected the personal data of millions of Americans and used it to target them with political ads.

The CEO outlined four steps the company would take: Committing to protect kids and teens on its platform, moving U.S. user data to Texas to keep China’s government from accessing it, promoting free expression on the platform and letting third-party researchers study its data security practices. But those promises didn’t seem to satisfy any of the lawmakers.

Coming amid growing concern among members of both parties about the Chinese government’s influence in the United States and around the world, the hearing focused attention on an issue that’s bigger than TikTok, as several committee members pointed out.

“Social media is designed to be addicting — that’s the business model,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district spans the Cascades from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs. “And your platform is the most addictive of all.”

Schrier, a pediatrician, expressed concern about TikTok’s impact on American teens, about two-thirds of whom use the app, according to an estimate several lawmakers cited. When Chew highlighted a new feature that suggests teens log off after an hour on TikTok, Schrier pointed out that users can simply dismiss the reminder.

“They’re going to immediately opt out,” she said. “It is addictive. It’s like asking a chain smoker not to take the next cigarette.”

President Joe Biden — like his predecessor, Donald Trump — has pushed to force TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, to sell TikTok. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government opposed a forced sale, which would already face legal challenges.

Forcing a sale would also require finding a buyer willing to pay for a company that’s worth an estimated $50 billion. Large tech companies that could conceivably pull off such an enormous purchase, such as Facebook parent company Meta, are already facing antitrust scrutiny because of their size and market dominance.

It’s unclear how the government would enforce a ban on the platform, which would be an unprecedented move. While GOP committee members largely favor banning the platform in the United States, most Democrats focused on the need for a federal law that would address broader data privacy concerns, while pointing out the app’s massive popularity among Americans.

“The genie’s really out of the bottle on this now,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla, citing the average of 150 million Americans who use TikTok each month. “That’s almost half of America. They’re expressing themselves in art and music, poetry, short film, comedy, among other creative expressions, and many of them are inspiring talented young people. But we also on the committee recognize there’s a darker side to it.”

In an open letter on Wednesday, a coalition of free speech and privacy organizations urged lawmakers not to ban TikTok and instead to pass a comprehensive data privacy law that would address problems that apply not only to TikTok, but to other social media platforms, dating apps and the rest of the online ecosystem that collects and sells vast amounts of users’ data.

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Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, used his time near the end of the hearing not to ask Chew any questions, but to reflect on what he had heard in the preceding hours.

“First of all, I’ve got to compliment you on having a product that’s impressive,” Fulcher said to Chew. “Here’s the problem: It’s someone else or some artificial intelligence algorithm that has inordinate power to subjectively combine strategic data with strategic audiences to shape whatever thoughts and news they want.”

No one, Fulcher said, should have that power — not the U.S. government, the Chinese government, any company or even his own mother. He also took issue with TikTok’s message, featured in a public relations blitz ahead of the hearing, that its mission is simply “to inspire creativity and bring joy.”

“TikTok poses as a ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ but it acts like Big Brother,” Fulcher said. “And that’s got to stop.”

As the hearing progressed, it became clear there was nothing Chew could say to change the minds of lawmakers who repeatedly interrupted or talked over his cagey responses to their questions.

“Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome,” McMorris Rodgers said in her opening statement, rattling off the company’s talking points before concluding, “We aren’t buying it.”

What comes next will depend largely on McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and has objected to the bipartisan data privacy bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced in a near-unanimous vote last July. With an outright ban facing seemingly slim odds, TikTok will likely continue to be a dominant force in American life until Congress acts to rein it in.