In one sense, Today’s US Congressional hearing on TikTok was a resounding success, showing in five hours how desperately the United States needs national data privacy protections — and how lawmakers somehow believe that attacking China is a viable alternative.
For some, Thursday’s job was to cast the only witness at the hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Ji-choe, as a stand-in for the Chinese government — in some cases, communism itself — and then string him up like beef. More than a few questions lawmakers asked Chu were vague, speculative and irrelevant to the allegations against his campaign. But the members of Congress who asked those questions seemed little interested in Chu’s answers anyway.
Attempts by Chu, a 40-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker, to talk about TikTok’s business practices have been frequently interrupted, and his requests to comment on matters of purported interest to members of Congress have been blocked and occasionally ignored. These opportunities to get the CEO on record while under oath have been repeatedly undermined in the name of expediency and mostly for theatrical reasons. Chew, on the other hand, was a portrait of patience, even when he was talked down to. Even when some legislators started asking and, without stopping, answering their questions.
The hearing could fall apart if lawmakers plan to dig up dirty new information about TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, or even discuss what the company can do next to address their concerns. But that was not the goal. The House Energy and Commerce Committee was convened to investigate “how Congress can protect the privacy of American data and protect children from harm online.” And at this hearing they discovered a lot.
First, it’s clear that trying to insulate TikTok from its competitors—treating it differently than dozens of other companies with appalling records of endangering children and abusing private data—is a futile exercise. When asked about TikTok’s propensity to track its own users, Chicago Congresswoman Ian Schakowsky cautioned Chu against using legal, typical industry practices as a defense against these mistakes. “You could say ‘no more than other companies,'” she said, adding that she prefers not to be “held to that standard.”
Good. But why not?
The truth is that if TikTok were to disappear tomorrow, its users would simply flock to any number of other apps that have no qualms about spying on the most private moments of their lives and collecting, manipulating, and selling sensitive information about them. Except for the most serious but largely unsubstantiated allegations against TikTok — that it is or will be acting in coordination with Chinese intelligence services — lawmakers on Thursday did not raise privacy concerns that could not be addressed by existing legislation that upholds national privacy law.
Ensuring that companies and the data brokers they enrich face swift retribution for blatant abuses of user trust benefits not only the many allegations leveled against TikTok, but also the fraud that is prevalent throughout the social media industry.
The irony that US lawmakers are looking to fix a problem that has already been addressed by a bill but not actually fixed due to their own inaction has not gone unnoticed by members. Florida Congresswoman Cathy Castor said the hearings focused mostly on one company, but they should really serve as a broader call to action. “Americans deserve to be protected no matter the source: from the surveillance, tracking, personal data collection and addictive algorithmic operations that serve up harmful content and have a corrosive effect on the mental and physical well-being of our children.”