TikTok and National Security: A High-Stakes Battle in the US Congress

If you’re tired of Instagram reels and YouTube videos, chances are you’ve at least considered installing TikTok. This social media platform has taken the world by storm by offering us relatively short, snappy videos ranging from dance challenges to lip-syncing and niche comedy skits.
Shortly after its release, this Chinese app has become a go-to destination for anyone looking to kill time by exposing themselves to an endless supply of versatile content. But besides being a so-called cultural phenomenon that has given rise to new stars, jobs, and genres of content, this social media app has also been a part of various controversies. Some of them include questioning TikTok’s data protection and its integrity. That said, no wonder TikTok is making headlines once again, as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee after the US lawmakers began considering restricting this social media app.

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TikTok Trial

Illustration: Milica M.

TikTok CEO’s Face Off with the US Congress

On Thursday, March 23rd, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Commitee in Washington D.C. as the US Congress eyed a ban on this prominent social media app. The reasons for this gathering are so-called, TikTok’s questionable privacy practices, data collection, and its role in exposing harmful content to the minors who deliberately use the app to this day.

The trial was opened by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a politician, and representative for Washington’s 5th congressional district, who was firing on all cylinders to show her disapproval of the TikTok app as soon as the hearing began.

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Mr Chew, you’re here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security. TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data, and more. Even if they’ve never been on TikTok, your trackers are embedded in sites across the web; TikTok surveils us all. And the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers opened the hearing with such a powerful and harsh statement.

She then continued to express the attitude of the US Congress regarding TikTok by stating the following:  “We do not trust that TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights, and innovation. TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path of more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”

What Happened During the Hearing?

The hearing, which lasted for almost five hours, presented TikTok’s CEO with a few major concerns. The statement supporting the ban of TikTok was brought up several times, and it’s primarily linked to the claim that TikTok is now apparently a national security concern.

Considering the dispute between the US and the Republic of China, the US government fears that TikTok is a surveillance tool the Chinese government uses to its advantage. They are eager to know what it is that TikTok does with the data it collects and whether they should take precautions by banning the app from the US. The TikTok CEO was even asked to confirm if the company was profiting from selling user data to other clients.

While the idea that TikTok sells user data isn’t pleasant, we have to take a step back and examine this from another angle.

The TikTok policy from its official website states the following: “We share your data with third-party service providers who help us to deliver the platform, such as cloud storage providers. We also share your information with business partners, other companies in the same group as TikTok, content moderation services, measurement providers, advertisers, and analytics providers. Where and when required by law, we will share your information with law enforcement agencies or regulators, and with third parties pursuant to a legally binding court order.”

Now, let’s take another social media platform, for example. Meta’s policy also states that the company doesn’t sell your information. Instead, they get paid by the advertisers to show you personalized ads based on the information Meta has about you as a Facebook user. In other words, they can help create personalized ads without revealing your information to third parties.

With all that said, the TikTok CEO tried to make a parallel between TikTok and other social media apps in the US that have had similar issues in the past, but he was soon cut off, as the hearing wasn’t about “them,” it was about TikTok’s practices only.

ByteDance and Its Alleged Ties to the Chinese Government

During the hearing, the Republican and Democrat lawmakers expressed concerns over ByteDance, the TikTok’s parent company, and its alleged ties to the Chinese Government, more specifically, the Chinese Communist Party. Despite the overly hostile backlash from the members of the House Committee, the TikTok CEO tried to take a defensive stance by claiming that “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” and that ByteDance is nothing more than a private company. People sitting on the other side of the table weren’t convinced, though.

Before he could even defend himself and his company, he was cut off by angry lawmakers demanding a clear “yes or no” answer to whether the app was spying on the American people on behalf of the government. Furthermore, dozens of lawmakers showed their dissatisfaction with the current affair involving TikTok, putting the TikTok CEO in a very difficult position. 

However, whether the TikTok data collection policy presents a threat to national security wasn’t the only urgent matter they wanted to discuss with TikTok’s CEO. The second issue refers to the way videos that circulate the app affect the audience, especially the young ones. 

The US representative Buddy Carter even said that research presents evidence of TikTok being the most addictive social media app. “There are those on this committee including myself who believe that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through TikTok to deliberately influence U.S. children,” Carter said to the TikTok CEO, showing concerns about the TikTok’s influence on children.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the US rained blows on the CEO of TikTok. There was very little room for an actual discussion at the hearing, as the prejudiced US didn’t let its guard down for a minute.

Yet, the TikTok CEO claimed that TikTok is taking measures to protect the minors on TikTok, and that “many of these measures are firsts for the social media industry; we forbid direct messaging for people under 16, and we have a 60-minute watch time by default for those under 18.”

Yet, while some overprepared themselves for both accusations and rebuttals, others had a different approach. Just look at the video below. It appears that the US Congress members are either trying to confuse the CEO of TikTok, or simply don’t know how the WiFi works.

Project Texas and the U.S. Government Demand for a Share in TikTok stock

After facing the opposing parties, the CEO of TikTok explained that, due to distrust from the US Congress, the TikTok team wants to protect user information and data by initiating a “Project Texas.”

If everything goes according to plan, the implementation of Project Texas would ensure the US user data is stored on servers located in the US. TikTok would coordinate with Oracle, a Texas-based company, hence the name “Project Texas.”

Furthermore, TikTok plans to allow the US government to keep an eye on the project and build a US-based security team to be in charge of the user data. Although facing direct accusations during the hearing, the CEO of TikTok still hopes that the implementation of Project Texas would be the first step towards building a trusted relationship and reassuring the US government that TikTok and its parent company aren’t, in fact, controlled by the Chinese government.  

However, the TikTok ban proposal was brought up a couple of times during the hearing. One of the possible solutions for that, according to US government officials, is to urge Chinese stakeholders to sell their stakes in the app. The CEO rejected this proposal, providing no resolution to the current events.

Jelena is a content writer dedicated to learning about all things crypto. Her hobbies are playing chess, drawing, baking, and going on long walks. During winter, she usually spends her leisure time reading books.

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