By Alex Bedwell
March 24, 2023
The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing focused on TikTok this week. The company’s CEO Shuo Chew testified and received difficult questions from members on both sides of the aisle. Here are some key takeaways from the hearing.
Will TikTok Be Banned?
During the hearing on Thursday, members of the committee expressed their firm belief that TikTok could be exploited by the Chinese Communist Party, leaving the future of the app in the U.S. uncertain. The Biden administration had already threatened a national ban, and the U.S. government had banned TikTok on government devices. The committee’s conviction was reinforced by a Wall Street Journal report, released just hours before the hearing, which stated that the Chinese government would not approve a TikTok sale. Lawmakers outside the committee are also not convinced, but a national ban would face significant legal and public opinion challenges. Previous attempts to ban TikTok were blocked in court due to free speech concerns, and millions of its users in the U.S. are unlikely to want to give up the fast-growing and popular apps.
Doubts regarding the feasibility of ‘Project Texas’
To address concerns about Chinese influence, TikTok has announced a new plan called Project Texas, which involves moving all data from U.S. users to servers located within the U.S. As part of the plan, the tech company Oracle would have access to TikTok’s source code and act as a third-party monitor. TikTok aims to complete the project by the end of the year, but some lawmakers doubt this is possible due to the large amount of source code that needs to be reviewed. Congressman Jay Obernolte (R-CA), who is also a software engineer, expressed concern that Project Texas may not have the technical capability to provide the necessary assurances.
China’s Relationship with TikTok
At the hearing, lawmakers repeatedly questioned Chew about China’s alleged influence over TikTok, citing it as a potential national security concern. Both House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) referred to TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, as a “Beijing communist-based parent company.” Chew maintained that the Chinese government does not control ByteDance and that there is no evidence that the government has accessed or requested access to U.S. user data. He also stated that TikTok does not remove or promote content at the request of the Chinese government. However, some legislators pointed out that Chinese engineers may still have access to some U.S. data due to the company’s reliance on “global interoperability.” Despite these concerns, Chew denied that TikTok posed a national security threat, stating that many of the risks are theoretical and hypothetical.
Lawmakers also addressed broader social media concerns during the hearing, focusing on TikTok’s ability to moderate harmful messaging, misinformation, and inappropriate content. Several legislators presented TikTok videos that promoted self-harm or suicide. Chew said that TikTok employs 40,000 moderators to monitor harmful content and utilizes an algorithm to identify controversial material. Additionally, the company plans to have “third-party validators” assess its algorithms and grant researchers access to study and monitor the content. However, Chew acknowledged that TikTok is not perfect in its moderation efforts, stating that the company works hard to improve its methods.
Kids’ Safety and Mental Health
Another frequent focus of the hearing was the safety of TikTok’s younger users, considering the app has exploded in popularity with this age group in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, most teenagers in the United States use TikTok. Specifically, 67% of individuals aged 13 to 17 have used the app, and 16% of that age group use it “almost constantly.” Lawmakers cited reports that drug-related content has spread on the app, allowing teens to purchase dangerous substances easily online. Chew said such content violates TikTok policy and that they are removed when identified. Others cited self-harm and eating disorder content, which have been spreading on the platform. TikTok is also facing lawsuits over deadly “challenges” that have gone viral on the app.