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Despite lacking evidence for their belief that TikTok is a spying tool for the Chinese Communist Party, US lawmakers from both parties on Thursday carried out an ugly political theater to advance that narrative.
Here’s the deal: TikTok’s CEO, Shou Chew, appeared before Congress to ostensibly face questions about his company’s efforts to protect user data and its ties to the Chinese government. Instead, Chew was subjected to five hours of badgering and political grandstanding by politicians who’ve already made up their mind that they want to boot TikTok — which is headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore — from all Americans’ phones.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, set the tone for the hearing early, telling Shou: “Your platform should be banned.”
Unlike most of his interrogators, Shou remained civil and answered lawmakers’ concerns in good faith. Or at least he tried to, when he wasn’t being interrupted or talked over or denied a chance to respond to an allegation.
Chew’s testimony comes as some lawmakers are renewing calls for the app to be banned in the United States over concerns about its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. Federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk a US ban.
But — and I cannot stress this enough — the national security concerns are purely hypothetical. And rather hysterical.
The idea, my colleague Brian Fung has written, is that because the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, it could compel ByteDance to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data.
“It’s not that we know TikTok has done something, it’s that distrust of China and awareness of Chinese espionage has increased,” said James Lewis, an information security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The context for TikTok is much worse as trust in China vanishes.”
Ties between the US and China are at an all-time low, raising the specter of a new Cold War era (see: the shooting down of spy balloons, long-running trade disputes, the cozy friendship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, diplomatic sparring over Taiwan, etc).
And against that tense (not to mention deeply xenophobic) backdrop, everyone in Washington is bolstering their “tough in China” credentials. One easy way to do that is tap into parents’ worst fears that their children’s brains are being manipulated by a foreign adversary, haul that company’s CEO to Capitol Hill and declare his app — wildly popular, with more than 150 million users in the US — a tool for the Communist Party.
The spectacle that played out on the Hill today had nothing to do with fact-finding or expressing any genuine concern for Americans’ privacy. If that were the goal, Mark Zuckerburg and Elon Musk, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, ought to have been called on to account for their platforms’ use of customer data and lax regulations around the spread of misinformation. Nope, today was was about advancing a modern Cold War narrative about China’s threat to American supremacy.
As digital rights advocate Evan Greer told Nightcap host Jon Sarlin, the hearing was “mostly xenophobic showboating to show that they’re tough on tech and tough on China.”
Greer notes that there are legitimate concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices, but they’re hardly unique to TikTok. “We see this handwringing about TikTok as a big distraction from the conversation that we really need to be having,” Greer said. “It’s a national embarrassment that we have no basic data privacy law in the United States.”
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