I wrote about Bucks County’s lawsuit against the major social media companies last week. As I noted then, “TikTok is especially pernicious.”
Also, last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing called “TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms.”
The hearing comes on the heels of a new Biden administration demand that TikTok be sold or face a U.S. ban. The testimony may convince Congress to pass such a law.
Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue that a nationwide ban would violate the First Amendment. Some Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, oppose the ban for less tangible reasons. She said the ban “doesn’t feel right.” Good to see she looks deep into weighty matters.
I am usually a First Amendment purist, but I believe a ban on TikTok is a matter of national security. Foreign media ownership in the U.S. was extremely limited before 2013. The FCC still grants approvals on a case-by-case basis. ByteDance is a media company. In addition to users who get their news from the app, TikTok can connect with Toutiaio, a Chinese news app owned by ByteDance.
The U.S. regularly bars foreign communications and technology companies from doing business in the U.S. for security reasons. The highest-profile case is probably Huawei, the Chinese tech and telecom giant. Other Chinese companies banned from doing business in the U.S. include China Mobile Communications Group, China Unicom, China Telecommunications, and chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International, to name a few.
In 2020, the Trump administration called for the same divestiture of TikTok’s U.S. operations that the Biden administration is pushing now. At that time, China added algorithms to an export-control list demonstrating that TikTok is also a technology subject to the same restrictions as other companies the U.S. has banned due to national security concerns.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew made his first appearance before a congressional committee to testify on TikTok’s practices.
Committee members from both sides of the aisle, in a rare show of bipartisanship, subjected Chew to over five hours of contentious questioning on TikTok’s impact on teen mental health, the relationship between parent company ByteDance and the Chinese government, and the privacy of users’ data
Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL) point blank asked Chew whether ByteDance “has spied on American citizens. Chew’s response, “spying is not the right way to describe it,” shouldn’t offer comfort.
Chew tried to assure lawmakers that Americans’ data was safe from China’s prying eyes. He tried calming Members by talking about the company’s Project Texas, a $1.5 billion restructuring plan to store U.S. user data on Oracle servers in Austin, Texas. Begun last July, Project Texas is supposed to be a firewall between U.S. users’ data and the Chinese government. However, Chew conceded that the project isn’t complete, and TikTok’s Beijing staff can access U.S. data until then.
Project Texas isn’t convincing. Lawmakers met with a former TikTok employee who worked in the Trust and Safety division. He told the Washington Post the plan for protecting U.S. users’ data is “deeply flawed.” He also shared code showing that TikTok could connect with systems linked to Toutiaio, a Chinese news app also run by ByteDance.
It gets worse. The former employee wrote a letter to Chew stating that senior managers were “responsible for the internal fraud pertaining to implementation of Project Texas” and that they were “intentionally lying” to the U.S. government.
The Washington Post notes: “ByteDance’s head of global legal compliance acknowledged receiving his letter of concerns and said the company would “review them with expediency,” according to a copy of the email reviewed by the Post. The company, he said, has not offered any updates since.”
Also, the Washington Post adds, “The former employee has not yet filed an official whistleblower complaint with the SEC, and his claims have not been corroborated by an official investigation.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reporting a second whistleblower. He writes: “The whistleblower describes TikTok’s access controls on U.S. data as ‘superficial’ at best, where they exist at all. As an example, he describes how TikTok and ByteDance employees – including members of the Chinese Communist Party known to be on ByteDance’s payroll can switch between Chinese and U.S. data with nothing more than the click of a button using a proprietary tool called Dorado. In his words, “[i]t’s just like a light switch.”
Further congressional investigation will show it is impossible to prevent the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from gaining access to TikTok’s data. A November 2020 edition of “60 Minutes” goes beyond last week’s hearing in showing how insidious the relationship is between TikTok and the CCP.
The segment heavily quotes Klon Kitchen, who spent 15 years in the U.S. Intelligence community, including the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center. He is currently a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. Kitchen explains, “China’s national security and cyber security laws require them to operate and build their networks so the government has unfettered access to their data. So no, the CCP doesn’t ask them for information. They don’t need to. They have access to the information.”
The “60 Minutes” report details Chinese nationals and military hackers stealing 145 million Americans’ financial records from Equifax, the credit reporting agency, health insurer Anthem, and the government’s Office of Personnel Management.
China could potentially build a dossier on every American. “Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and you saw a news report that China had distributed 100 million sensors around the United States and that any time an American walked past one of these sensors, this sensor automatically collected off of your phone, your name, home address, your personal network, who you’re friends with, your online viewing habits and a host of other information. Well, that’s precisely what TikTok is. It has 100 million U.S. users. It collects all of that information,” said Kitchen (at the time of the interview, TikTok had 100 million U.S. users; now it’s up to 150 million).
Last week I reviewed the data on the damage TikTok is doing to teens’ mental health. One of the more emotional moments of the hearing was when Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced Dean and Michelle Nasca, whose 16-year-old son, Chase, killed himself after repeated exposures to psychologically damaging messages and suggestions of suicide on TikTok. The Nascas are suing ByteDance.
During this part of the hearing, Chew confirmed that his children are not on TikTok because, in Singapore, where they live, there is no version of the platform available for children under 13.
What further evidence of the app’s toxicity is needed?
At the very least, keeping minors off the platform should be an easy call.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) summed it up best. “If this committee gets its way, TikTok’s time is up,” he told the company’s CEO.
Despite my fervent support of the First Amendment, I support a total ban on TikTok.
Andy Bloom is president of Andy Bloom Communications. He specializes in media training and political communications. He has programmed legendary stations including WIP, WPHT and WYSP/Philadelphia, KLSX, Los Angeles and WCCO Minneapolis. He was Vice President Programming for Emmis International, Greater Media Inc. and Coleman Research. Andy also served as communications director for Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio). He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @AndyBloomCom.