TikTok’s Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew will meet with the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Thursday, and he’s probably going to have a difficult time convincing the politicians that his app deserves to stay in America.
Following in the footsteps of some of social media’s biggest players, Chew (pictured), like them, is going to placate fears that his social media app is not a menace to society. That mainly concerns if it shares data with the Chinese Communist party and therefore is a threat to national security. Chew will also have to state in his case that the app is not pernicious in regard to young folk’s mental well-being.
TikTok, which is owned ByteDance Ltd., has over 150 million U.S. users. In 2022, it was the most downloaded app in the country by far – a trend that happened globally that year. As the TikTok explosion continues, many of the countries where it has the most fans have been busily trying to demonize it as an imminent national threat. This will make Chew’s job all the more difficult this week. His app’s detractors are numerous, and yet, in what’s quite a unique situation, he had the public on his side. Woe surely betides any politicians seen as the instigators if TikTok does get banned.
Chew will start with the usual platitudes, reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s sugary sentiments about Facebook; he’ll tell politicians that TikTok brings “joy to more than 1 billion people worldwide” and “brighten people’s lives.” That’s debatable, of course, considering the rise of social media has been partly blamed for the polarization of society and an increase in mental health problems for the young.
Chew’s specious contestation probably won’t cut it for Congress, although he may impress some of those in attendance when he tells them of his past studies at the University College of London and Harvard Business School, which he’ll abut with the factual bonus point that he comes from a military family.
Before he gets into the weeds, he’ll mention all the positive things people use TikTok for: cooking, music, art, reading books, while omitting the parts about people falling off chairs and beating up their teachers in classrooms. He’ll say how it’s helped small businesses thrive, how “sales exploded” for a former bus driver who now owns a “no-frills…handcrafted soaps and bath products” company.
The politicians might not be so concerned, but they will likely listen with more intent when he tells them keeping the app safe for teenagers is a “top priority.” They might take notice when he vows to maintain a firewall to prevent any “unauthorized foreign access.”
He wrote that no government – meaning the Chinese government – will be able to manipulate “free expression” on the platform, and as far as data goes, “third-party independent monitors” will keep his app in line. This has been discussed before and is presently happening in the E.U., although Oracle Corp. was offered the position to take part in a $1.5 billion transparency plan, and that still hasn’t come to fruition. He did say that this effort to keep data safe, the $1.5 billion “Project Texas”, is ongoing.
“TikTok’s engagement with Congress is emblematic of our broader approach to transparency,” he wrote, explaining that the company already provides information “beyond our legal obligations.” He added, “Every quarter, we release a Community Guidelines Enforcement Report. These reports contain detailed information about the type and volume of content we remove. Twice a year, we also disclose data about requests we receive from law enforcement or governments.”
Addressing the mental health aspect for kids, his amelioration consists of explaining that “people under 13 are directed to a separate, curated viewing experience, with stringent safeguards and privacy protections designed specifically for them.” He also wrote that TikTok has proactively banned accounts linked to “bullying, hateful behavior, promotion of disordered eating, and violent extremism.”
Lastly, he will say it’s “emphatically untrue” that any part of TikTok is “beholden to the Chinese government.” As the company is incorporated in the U.S, it follows U.S. laws, he will say. “TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government,” he will add to that. “Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.” He will then list some of the 60 “global institutional investors.”
This has all been said before, so it will be interesting how Congress will pick apart his speech and if indeed anyone will have the technological nous to throw a wrench in the works of what Chew describes as a standup kind of company harmlessly creating riches and happiness for millions of Americans.
If the app is banned and the lawsuits don’t change that, it will eventually be rendered useless because no one will receive the flurry of updates that happen on regular basis. Virtual private networks might help get around that, but the ban no doubt will cause some amount of ill-will between the public and politicians. The youth of America may suddenly emerge from their phones, condemning the government for taking away their fun. This animus will be all the more impassioned if Congress can’t substantially prove TikTok is really a danger for them and their country.
Perhaps if an American company says it will buy TikTok, which could cost up to $100 billion, the protests may subside, but then any company that tries that is certain to fall victim to an antitrust probe. As analysts have already pointed out, you can forget about Meta Platforms Inc. or Google LLC trying to buy TikTok. Given Oracle’s close relationship with the app, maybe it will stand up and make an offer. In the meantime, millions of Americans will bear a very big grudge toward their government.