Members of Congress inveighing against online “harm”; a nervous tech executive defending his company’s policies; thinly veiled threats about regulatory changes. If you tuned into C-SPAN last Thursday, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at the rerun of a pre-2022 hearing, when Democrats used their control of Congress to haul Facebook personnel before them to harangue. Almost, but not quite.
Instead, this particular grilling was made possible by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and instead of Facebook, it was TikTok CEO Shou Chew in the firing line. And as a result, there’s now a US ban on TikTok being seriously discussed in the corridors of power.
Over five hours long, the hearing was at times a darkly hilarious reminder that the lawmakers most gung ho about clamping down on tech platforms are not exactly tech-savvy. Rep. Richard Hudson and Chew had an extended back and forth as the GOP House member demanded to know if TikTok “access[es] the home WiFi network.” “How do you determine what age they are then?” Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter asked, before being told that, like many social media platforms, users are asked their age. Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Crenshaw seemed to think Chew was a Chinese citizen, despite the fact that he’d mentioned four times earlier that he hails from and lives in Singapore.
It was refreshing to hear some lawmakers raise concerns to a tech executive about his company’s censorship policies and their unintended consequences, instead of pressuring him to do more of it. Even so, this line of questioning was not the norm, with committee members from both parties — even the GOP, who have attempted to rebrand as opponents of censorship (despite going into overdrive in pushing their own censorship measures) in recent years — pressing Chew, as per usual, to do more to remove “potentially harmful content” from the platform, whether misinformation and hate speech for the Democrats or the promotion of drugs for Republicans.
But given this is 2023, this was very much a showcase of hostility to China, with committee members mostly using the hearing to raise nonstop concerns about the dangerous implications of TikTok’s role as a medium of information and its collection of users’ data, given its relationship to Beijing.
“That is 150 million Americans that [the Communist Party of China] can collect sensitive information on and control what we ultimately see, hear, and believe,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, warned.
“TikTok has been functioning as a massive surveillance program collecting vast swaths of personal data for more than a billion people worldwide,” said Hudson. “Engineers in China have access to personal data of thirteen-year-olds in the United States,” fretted Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, while Rep. Debbie Dingell spoke of the very real “dangerous implications” of what happens when you collect people’s geolocation data.
They’re not wrong. As even Chew acknowledged, TikTok, like other social media companies, does vacuum up and store its users’ personal data, and he wouldn’t explicitly rule out collecting users’ health and location data in the future, one of many instances where he evaded questioning a little too skillfully. Social media, like any form of media, can be an effective instrument of social control. And there are legitimate concerns around TikTok at least being influenced by the Chinese government.
Even so, the hyperventilating underway in Washington over this is hard to take seriously for several reasons. It’s true that the world shouldn’t be sanguine about one extremely powerful government’s special level of influence over a globally popular tech platform or the surveillance implications that result. But this is the same argument that one can make about the United States and the various tech companies — Google, Facebook, Twitter, to name a few — headquartered there.
As the “Twitter Files” reporting and recent disclosures have shown, the US government has a shockingly intimate relationship with, and powerful influence over, tech platforms like these, guiding or even directly shaping their censorship policies, right down to what kind of content and which accounts are to be censored. This isn’t totally new: among the revelations of the Edward Snowden documents was that Washington uses social media to push what the National Security Agency (NSA) itself labeled “propaganda” and “deception.” Several recent major studies found that bots pushing US government–aligned messaging were vastly more active than those of US adversaries, even if we don’t hear about them as much.
And when it comes to the peoples of the world having their intimate data sucked up, what the Washington Post once termed “Top Secret America” is a far more egregious offender. The Snowden leak, after all, revealed that through the US tapping of undersea Internet cables and various other means, the governments of the Five Eyes network collect and can access “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.” This isn’t exactly new either: these tech companies have been called “surveillance intermediaries” for years now because of their willing complicity with governments’ requests for people’s data, with the US government not the least among them. The government gathers up so much data about its own and the world’s citizens, in fact, that even NSA workers have complained that it’s hard to sift through it all and actually detect threats.
But for Americans who were meant to watch Thursday’s hearing and come away feeling very, very afraid of the threat China poses to their personal safety, it’s worth remembering a far more important point: that people everywhere have more to fear from the spying their own governments and businesses do than from the surveillance that foreign adversaries do, however unsavory those other governments might be.
Say you’re a Cop City protester in Atlanta, dozens of whom are currently being prosecuted as domestic terrorists by the state government in Georgia. Is TikTok your biggest worry or is it the sprawling post-9/11 national security state, which has repeatedly surveilled and harassed a variety of government critics and which is reportedly keeping tabs on you? Likewise, if you’re an undocumented immigrant, what the Department of Homeland Security does with the enormous breadth of personal information it quietly collects from commercial brokers — including the geolocation data Dingell correctly raised concerns over — will worry you a lot more than what Beijing may or may not do with the same data.
Or turn this thinking around. Can anyone say with a straight face that the average Chinese citizen is more threatened by overseas data collection — one of the justifications the Chinese government has used for its own Internet crackdowns — than they are by that of their own government, which uses this surveillance to ruthlessly stamp out dissent and control its population? Or if Vladimir Putin told the Russian people they should be most worried about US-based tech companies gathering their personal information, all while his government kept tabs on critics and tracked down and arrested dissidents. Would we think they should take his words seriously? Of course not.
But in any case, it’s worth noting that a TikTok ban may not even matter all that much, since in our decentralized, data-saturated world, the Chinese government has a million ways to Sunday for getting its hands on your private information if it really wants to.
As Paris Marx recently argued, what this entire matter is really all about is the gradually erupting and entirely unnecessary new cold war with China that US officials are seemingly hell bent on, creating a climate in which lawmakers want to show “how much Western governments are willing to drive a wedge between themselves and China instead of making any real difference to security or privacy.” Far easier to point the finger at the potential misdeeds of a foreign bad guy, after all, than to do the job of holding one’s own government to account — especially if you’d quietly prefer that most Americans didn’t think about the vast surveillance state they live under or the repression it might enable.
As with all social media, there are constructive policy changes and regulations that should be made in regards to TikTok both to protect its users’ privacy and their mental health. But so far, the US efforts against the platform are looking like they might be the worst of all worlds: unpopular, authoritarian, and pointless.