TikTok pile-on opens two cans of worms

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms, as lawmakers scrutinise the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US on March 23.
PHOTO: Reuters

NEW YORK - American lawmakers see TikTok as a problem. Yet the bipartisan attack on the short-form video app, owned by China-based ByteDance, really points to two different complications – and each, in turn, opens up a much bigger can of worms.

A panel of officials from the House of Representatives grilled TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew on Thursday (March 23), covering a range of issues including teenage mental health, legal protections for social media apps, fentanyl sales and censorship of content related to China's treatment of Uyghurs.

It was a hostile hearing; one member compared Chew to Meta Platforms' Mark Zuckerberg, citing the Facebook founder's "nebulous answers" during his own hearings on Capitol Hill.

The overarching reason for Chew's appearance is that President Joe Biden's administration, and many in Congress, think TikTok's Chinese backing makes it a dangerous tool of the People's Republic.

Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers accused TikTok of collecting biometric data and manipulating what information users see.

But the assault on TikTok is confused. Some politicians focus on its collection of data; others on the ideas it allows to proliferate.

These are different things.

Take the first one: data. It's not just TikTok that potentially vacuums up consumer details while having close links to China.

By that token, fast-fashion company Shein, which is seeking to raise US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in an initial public offering, is a concern.

So is PDD's e-commerce service Temu, the eighth most downloaded shopping app last year, according to Apptopia.

CapCut, a video editing tool owned by ByteDance, zipped up that list too.

Is location data more sensitive than purchase history, or what a user watches? Lawmakers can't seem to decide.

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Then there's TikTok's influence over how Americans think. As a social media network, it could be a propaganda tool in certain hands.

But so could US rivals. Twitter, Meta's Facebook and Instagram, and Alphabet's YouTube have been singled out for hosting misinformation campaigns.

Having a Chinese parent could theoretically make TikTok susceptible to political pressure. So would having critical factories and customer groups in China, though.

With that logic, most of the US technology sector would be under suspicion.

Scrutinising TikTok for privacy and persuasion isn't wrong – but it's a distraction from the bigger questions.

Those require more resources and thought than Congress currently seems prepared to give.