This past Thursday, Mar. 23, 2023, Congress conducted a long-awaited hearing on TikTok, called “How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children From Online Harms.” That title, however, appears to have been missing the C-Word: China.
While both sides of the aisle did ask questions on how TikTok moderates content and protects privacy — issues relevant to any social media platform — the real energy was spent on TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. Members were more interested in learning whether China could use TikTok’s data to exploit Americans and its algorithms to brainwash them.
The problem with these hearings is that they treat companies incorporated within our border as different from those outside it. Yet, every concern about TikTok and its impact on kids and privacy applies to our homegrown social media companies. These concerns are meaningful because the market fails to protect data privacy, not because a particular company is based in a country run by people we don’t trust. Banning the app for doing what other social media does isn’t a solution.
WHAT WAS THE HEARING REALLY ABOUT?
The hearing broke down into three issues: data privacy, child safety, and foreign subversion. Democrats were concerned with the first two, while Republicans focused on the latter. Several representatives asked how it could be possible that TikTok can maintain independence from the Chinese Communist Party when its parent company, ByteDance, is in China and the government maintains a strong degree of control over the private sector. Some representatives showed violent content and demanded to know why moderation hadn’t removed it. But if you know anything about how social apps work, you would know that is an impossible game to win because algorithms are rarely precise, and that human-based moderation is a slow, labor-intensive process.
These hearings treat companies incorporated within our border as different from those outside it. Yet, every concern about TikTok and its impact on kids and privacy applies to our homegrown social media companies.
Representative Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) appeared to think TikTok’s ability to operate on WiFi (like any web application) meant it was unusually capable of hacking other devices. Presumably, this means every single app is now a lethal weapon. Representative Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) summed up the mood best: “You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or the 150 million users of your app because it’s an extension of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” Yet, here are some videos critical of the Chinese Communist Party, presumably because it famously loves to engage in self-criticism.
The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, showed the unusual degree of responsiveness TikTok has had to these concerns. It’s addressing privacy concerns through Project Texas: agreeing to on-shoring US data, providing its recommendation algorithms, and even submitting to regular reviews by US-appointed security experts. Opponents may say it’s not enough, but TikTok is spending over a billion dollars annually to do something other social media companies aren’t required to do, even if it erodes its competitive advantage.
In addition, TikTok is the first major social app to have applied an automatic 60-minute watch limit for kids. It also banned direct messaging for those under 16 (most apps only restrict under 13) and provided parents with the ability to monitor and restrict their children’s usage of the app. These measures aren’t perfect (you may have heard that kids are really good at not following the rules), but TikTok is basically voluntarily replicating public policies proposed by social media critics in the United States.
A BAN IS NOT (NECESSARILY) THE SOLUTION
It’s possible the issues highlighted in the hearing still warrant a ban, but the types of evidence that need to exist to justify it are extensive, including evidence that the harm exists on TikTok’s platform, an indication that it does not exist in a similar or greater capacity on other platforms, any documentation that a ban would remedy the issue, and information that the ban wouldn’t have unintended costs even greater than the issue it purports to solve. That’s a tall order.
Bans are self-defeating because removing Americans from the platform would harm, not improve, the quality of discourse. It would only make it harder for Americans to improve the app. If the issue is that TikTok can subvert minds, cutting off access for people from the biggest, freest country in the world would make it even more pro-Chinese Communist Party. In information warfare, removing “soldiers” isn’t a way to win.
If the government did find a way to de-list TikTok on app stores — something it has never done before — it still wouldn’t be able to remove those copies already installed on millions of phones (the final number would be even higher since the fear of a ban causes a rush to get the product). These apps would function without ongoing security patches, making them even more vulnerable than had the ban not happened in the first place. Furthermore, TikTok content would still be accessible through the web domain. The United States doesn’t even block access to terrorist websites, so why ban TikTok?
Social media platforms aren’t perfect: studies show real harm to people, especially minors. However, the solution isn’t to single out one app. Congress should pass universal regulations that hold all social media companies accountable for protecting children. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which restricts the ability of children under 13 to use the Internet, is a good baseline, but Congress can — and should — do more.
If you held Meta stock before last week, congrats on the little boost. Their millions in lobbying efforts paid off. TikTok has subverted our minds. It’s made us think that an app filled with dancing teddy bears and giant cheeseburgers is going to turn people pro-China. That access to any civilian’s location data now will help China kill us more effectively in wartime. Future hearings would be far better served by living up to this one’s title: solving content and privacy issues across industry, both domestic and international.
Yameen Huq is a cybersecurity professional and a researcher at the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft. Previously, he was a consultant specializing in analytics, cybersecurity, and strategy for public and private-sector clients.