Last month’s grueling five-hour Congressional hearing with TikTok chief financial officer Shou Chew laid bare two crucial issues. One, Congress remains unconcerned with managing Big Tech unless the corporation in question is not Meta or Twitter, but a Chinese company. And two, Congress’ growing technology illiteracy has exacerbated the conflation of public safety with xenophobic sentiments.
Amid concerns that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, could reveal sensitive American information to the Chinese government, Congress and President Joe Biden have pushed for either a ban on the app in the United States or a forced sale by TikTok’s Chinese owners. Legislative restrictions on TikTok and other social media apps have rapidly propagated over the past few years. In March, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox approved a bill requiring the explicit consent of a parent or guardian before a minor can access social media. Last week, Montana became the first U.S. state to approve a complete TikTok ban. Fears over TikTok’s security are not completely unfounded. NPR reported that “TikTok’s Beijing-based corporate owner, ByteDance … is subject to Chinese data request laws that compel companies to hand over information to the government about customers.” And last December, four ByteDance employees were fired for gathering data on two American journalists.
These bans not only originate from but also perpetuate political fears over TikTok. In traveling to such extreme lengths to “protect” the American populace and state, national governments also reveal their own hypocrisy toward regulating Big Tech. The Washington Post reported that the ByteDance data gathering scandal involved IP addresses, but not more precise GPS location data — which U.S. companies like Facebook and Uber have previously used. Data privacy shouldn’t be an endless cycle of finger-pointing — first Meta, now TikTok — but the hypocrisy should be acknowledged. U.S. Congress Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), one of the few congresspeople defending TikTok, rejected the idea that data protection was the issue at hand, pointing out that a similar Facebook ban was never discussed when Russia used Facebook to interfere with the 2016 election.
Simultaneously, the hearings emphasized the digital illiteracy at the heart of a rapidly aging congress. Congresspeople questioned why TikTok needed to access “home Wi-Fi” and why the app needed to “know where the eyes are” when using filters. These questions echo the awkward interactions between Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and congresspeople at the former’s hearing in 2018 — “‘How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?’ U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked Zuckerberg early on in the hearing. “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied. In the current digital age, a government dominated by those unfamiliar with technology is dangerous — it fosters an environment in which bigotry and bias overtake the facts at hand.
It fosters precisely the kind of environment in which congresspeople feel entitled to demand that Chew remove his “anti-American” and “pro-CCP” platform from the country. And, of course, there are concerns that a potential TikTok ban could lead to wider censorship. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued that a TikTok ban “would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use the app to express themselves daily.” Ramya Krishnan, a lawyer at the Knight First Amendment Institute, compared banning TikTok to “’banning a newspaper or TV channel, but worse.’” She added, “’It would shut down a channel of communication that tens of millions of Americans use to share information and ideas every day.” TikTok famously has a youth skew. In 2022, 67 percent of American teens aged 18 to 19 used TikTok, compared to just 45 percent of those aged 30 to 39. Approximately 41 percent of all Americans use TikTok, with many following politicians who disseminate information through TikTok or news agencies like The Washington Post.
The haze of controversy around TikTok will likely not subside for the foreseeable future. But the tone of Chew’s hearing and the commentary from both politicians and pundits have clarified that whether or not the United States government chooses to ban TikTok, issues of xenophobia and data privacy, especially against the backdrop of an aging congress, will persist.
Kathryn Lee is a sophomore double-majoring in English and economics.