Is TikTok getting banned? CEO in for 'tough fight' defending Chinese ownership on Capitol Hill
TikTok has never been more popular or more controversial.
The short-form video platform does not just rule online culture. It shapes it, from the Corn Kid remix to Louis Theroux’s “Jiggle Jiggle.”
None of its rivals – not Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat – has come close to capturing its magical hold on our phones and attention spans, especially with young people.
The problem? China.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Scrutiny over TikTok’s relationship with Beijing put the company in the crosshairs during the Trump administration and the Biden administration.
Now the U.S. is demanding that the app be sold or banned.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, his first appearance before a Congressional committee. You can follow live coverage here.
Biden administration worried about China spying
The U.S. worries that TikTok could be pressured into handing over U.S. user data to the Chinese government or that it could be used as a propaganda machine to manipulate Americans.
TikTok says it protects U.S. users by storing their personal data outside China and says it does not share information with Beijing.
“There is speculation that TikTok could compromise national security,” said University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo. “TikTok could, in theory, share aggregate or individual data about Americans with the Chinese intelligence sector. Or TikTok could manipulate its recommendation algorithms to deemphasize content that is critical of the Chinese government or promote Chinese propaganda. There is no evidence TikTok is doing either.”
'TikTok will have a tough fight'
The issue came to a head last week when the Biden administration demanded that TikTok's Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, a federal task force that considers national security risks in cross-border business investments, made the demand, according to TikTok.
“Trump tried to ban TikTok, but the ban was thrown out of court because it was so badly drafted,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This administration has been a lot more careful, so TikTok will have a tough fight.”
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew to appear before Congress
With concerns about the ill effects of social media at all-time highs and tensions growing with China, Chew’s congressional testimony will likely be met with a bipartisan buzzsaw.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok. Now, this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you,” Chew said in a video Tuesday.
Chew is expected to make the case to the American people that selling TikTok to a U.S. company would not address national security concerns.
A sale would face other obstacles. Few companies could afford to pay the asking price. Also, the Chinese government would have to approve the sale.
“I’ll be testifying before Congress this week to share all that we’re doing to protect Americans using the app,” Chew said.
TikTok says it will spend $1.5 billion protecting U.S. user data.
What would TikTok be banned for? China, national security
Those assurances have not stopped states around the country and more than a dozen countries around the globe from rolling out TikTok restrictions or bans. Last month, the White House gave federal agencies 30 days to remove TikTok from all phones and systems. Colleges have also banned TikTok, citing national security concerns.
With good reason, according to Lewis.
“China is really aggressive in spying on the U.S. and wouldn’t hesitate a minute to use TikTok,” he said. “Think of TikTok as an opportunity for the Chinese government to put an app on your phone that collects data and that you don’t control.”
Will the United States ban TikTok?
Calo says he’s skeptical Congress will pass a bill banning TikTok.
“Even if they do, I think a court will block any ban,” Calo said. “First, it sets a bad precedent for the secretary of commerce or any government official to be able to force a private platform like Apple iPhone or Google Android to block an app based purely on speculation about national security. And second, by banning TikTok, the government impinges on the free speech rights of TikTok content creators and their audiences.”
What would happen if the US banned TikTok?
If the United States bans TikTok, it may remove it from the Apple and Google app stores. That would prevent users from getting updates and new users from signing up.
Americans could still install TikTok on their phones by “sideloading” it or they could access TikTok via browsers, according to Bruce Schneier, lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of "A Hacker's Mind."
The U.S. also might ban U.S. companies from doing business with TikTok, which would cut it off from the infrastructure needed to run the app. That would also hit TikTok’s advertising business.
According to Schneier, the most extreme step would be for Congress to ban anyone in the United States from using TikTok. At that point, the government would need a national firewall, much like the one China uses to spy on its citizens and censor the internet.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TikTok has a China problem: CEO in for 'tough fight' as US weighs ban