Congress members attack TikTok at CEO’s hearing: ‘Control, surveillance and manipulation’

Members of the House Energy and Commerce committee signaled their hostility towards TikTok and other Chinese companies on Thursday as the panel’s GOP majority accused the Los Angeles- and Singapore-based company of being un-American.

The attack was led by the committee’s Republican majority, empowered by their November takeover of the lower chamber and eager to capitalise on what little political momentum they have (thanks to a narrow defeat of the Democrats) with a new harder-than-ever line against China and its ruling Communist Party.

Chairwoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers began the committee’s bashing of the company with an opening statement accusing the app, which is banned in China, of being used for “control”, “surveillance”, and “manipulation” of Americans, including children.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” she said as the hearing commenced.

Ms McMorris-Rodgers added: “TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations.”

The Republican chair concluded by warning that a data privacy bill was necessary to prevent other companies from following TikTok’s model in the future. Republicans and some Democrats believe that the company can be used by agents of China’s government to spy on US citizens, including journalists and potentially members of government who use the app. TikTok and Bytedance, the app’s parent company, strongly dispute this in public statements.

However, on Thursday, Ms McMorris-Rodgers drilled down on whether TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew could say with certainty that his company’s product has never been used to spy on American journalists or boost content that spread supportive messages about China’s government. She used the concept of the debate over the governance and sovereignty of Taiwan as an example.

Can you say for sure, the chair inquired, that China’s government “cannot use your company, or its divisions, to [boost] content to promote pro-CCP messages for an act of aggression against Taiwan?”

Mr Chew replied that TikTok does not promote such content, though Ms McMorris-Rodgers noted that he could not guarantee that it had never happened. A similar exchange occurred over the issue of spying on journalists, which Mr Chew also declined to commit to saying had never happened.

Her questioning followed the opening statement from Mr Chew, who touted the US headquarters of the company and efforts to bring all data stored by the app onto servers governed by US data law.

"We expect that [transfer] to be complete this year,” he said. “When that is done, all protected US data will be under the protection of US law."

That line is not likely to convince the large bloc of lawmakers emerging in favour of legislation that, at a minimum, would direct the Commerce Department to review the risk that TikTok posed to Americans. Senator Mitt Romney, who has endorsed the Senate bill, spoke to The Independent about whether the physical location of the servers storing the data mattered.

“I'm not going to consider myself an expert on which servers are going to be accessed by the CCP. But if they have the capacity to take over a company and demand its information, whether the servers (are) in the US or in China would be irrelevant,” said Mr Romney, ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee on East Asia.

At least one Republican member exhibited the sigh-inducing ignorance that many members of Congress have similarly shown on the issue of technology and social media in the past. Rep Richard Hudson, a Republican from North Carolina, used part of his limited question time to ask whether the app “access[es] the home WiFi network” of users. Obviously, like any app that connects to the internet, TikTok can use home WiFi networks, or any other kind of WiFi network; it can also be accessed via cellular data plans.

Thursday’s hearing was a clear political bruising for the company, whose CEO headed to Capitol Hill this week with even fewer allies than other social media giants like Facebook and Twitter enjoy and saw no friendly faces on the Energy and Commerce committee.

The problem faced by the company was laid out by the back-patting members of the panel, who took every opportunity to note the bipartisan nature of the faction on Capitol Hill who have concerns about the dangers they say the app could pose to national security.

Among those was Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, who opened his remarks by thanking Mr Chew for “bringing Republicans and Democrats together”.

To be clear, not all of Mr Crenshaw’s GOP colleagues were on board with their Democratic rivals’ tough talk on the issue. While the hearing was breaking for lunch, two Republican lawmakers who were not part of the panel held a separate press conference outside of the Capitol alongside the notoriously anti-LGBT conservative activist Chaya Raichik, founder of the controversial “LibsOfTikTok” account. The two members, Troy Nehls and Mary Miller, were flanked by roughly a dozen activists wearing black “Ban TikTok” shirts.

Ms Miller accused the app of “brainwashing” young Americans to join a supposed “transgender cult”, the same reasoning that Ms Raichik has used for singling out private citizens for abuse from her legions of followers.

Mr Nehls told reporters — while ignoring the White House’s support for the Senate legislation — that Mr Biden actually opposed banning TikTok because his entire family was supposedly “beholden” to the Chinese government, a frequent talking point on the far right.

“They're beholden to China. That [Chinese surveillance] balloon would have been shot down — number one, if Trump would have been in office there wouldn’t have been a balloon over [the United States]. If Trump...were in office today, we wouldn’t have to have press conferences...But we've got an administration, we've got a family that is corrupt, and owned by China.”

On the whole, the day signified a hard path ahead for TikTok, which is facing the prospect of seeing legislation passed that is specifically engineered to allow the US Department of Commerce to ban it from conducting transactions on US soil, or on servers governed by US data laws. A handful of progressive Democrats have signed on to the effort to prevent a ban, but none were present at the hearing today and their number is, at present, not enough to stop such legislation from passing the House.

Most worryingly for the company’s executives, the White House issued a statement last week congratulating a bipartisan group of senators behind the ban legislation in the upper chamber, and stated that President Joe Biden would sign the bill if it reached his desk. Signing it would not ban the app outright, but immediately give the Commerce Department permission to do so, or to take lesser enforcement measures against the company.

Concerns on the left largely centre around the issue of free speech; many have publicly fretted that banning the app would close an avenue that thousands of Americans use to express their views on (nearly) every side of a wide range of issues. That was the worry that Gerry Connolly, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight subcomittee on cybersecurity, enunciated in an interview with The Independent as the hearing returned from a lunch break Thursday afternoon.

“How best do we protect consumers, while not disrupting their freedom to use an app of their choosing?” the Virginia representative pondered.

“I'm loathe to censor anything as a passionate First Amendment champion, but I do believe there are security risks with anything that's headquartered in China,” he continued.

Centrist Democrats like Mr Connolly and President Joe Biden are hoping that a third option is chosen by TikTok’s owners — rather than see the app banned outright, they hope ByteDance will sell the popular social media app to an American buyer (or another that does have the same political baggage as does a Chinese company).

Mr Chew looked upon that choice with clear disdain at Thursday’s hearing, arguing that “American social companies don't have a good track record with data privacy and user security.

”I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he quipped.

Meanwhile, the most prominent defender of the app in the Democratic Party is Rep Jamaal Bowman of New York, who held a press conference this week with dozens of TikTok creators to rally opposition to the legislation.

“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok? ... It poses about the same threat that companies like Facebook, and Instagram, and YouTube, and Twitter pose,” said Mr Bowman on Wednesday.

In an NBC News interview, he added: “I haven’t seen any hard evidence that TikTok is committing some form of espionage. What I’ve heard is speculation. And what I’ve heard is innuendo.”

Mr Connolly countered that line of thinking on Thursday, telling The Independent: “I don't think the question is, whether there's hard evidence they have [committed espionage]. It's whether they could, and that's really the issue in front of the [Congress].”

A ban on TikTok was already attempted during the Trump administration under existing law, but it was never implemented due to a court challenge.