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TikTok's Hearing in Congress: What to Expect
The TikTok CEO is testifying Thursday, March 23 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Here's what to expect.
TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, is testifying tomorrow, March 23 before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. This comes amid a multi-year debate in Washington, DC about the app — owned by Chinese technology firm ByteDance — and its potential risks to US national security. Having been involved in the DC TikTok debate for three-plus years, and invited to one of TikTok’s closed-door briefings in DC on its “Project Texas,” here’s what to expect in the hearing tomorrow. Brought to you by Global Cyber Strategies, a Washington, DC-based research and advisory firm.
When TikTok’s CEO testifies to the House tomorrow, we can likely expect (at minimum) members of Congress attempting to get him to make assurances under oath — for instance, about whether the Chinese government has ever asked TikTok to hand over data on US persons — and members using the hearing to make political points, whether about the need for a comprehensive data privacy law or about how China is a strategic competitor to the US that threatens national security.
What to Expect from the TikTok Hearing
TikTok’s overall approach to the national security debate has not been to spend all of its time and money arguing against the concerns themselves. I say this having been involved in the DC TikTok debate for three-plus years now — and also having been invited to one of TikTok’s closed-door DC briefings, where the company’s top leadership spent hours describing “Project Texas” and how TikTok sees its actions addressing the national security concerns raised by policymakers. As I told The Drum:
TikTok’s approach has been to accept that policymakers have national security concerns, rather than argue about the concerns themselves, and instead focus on arguing that ‘Project Texas’ and its other measures over the last couple years have sufficiently mitigated the risks in question.
This observation has already borne out in Shou Zi Chew’s written testimony, which the House Committee on Energy and Commerce published on Tuesday night:
I know that trust is something that is earned through action, not words, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss not only our commitments, but also tangible evidence from TikTok’s efforts to become a leader in safety and security. Having met with a number of members of the Committee in recent weeks, the concerns that I have heard fall primarily into four categories: minor safety, data privacy and security, real-world harms from online activities, and the risk of foreign content manipulation. I would like to address each of these in turn.
So, what can we actually expect tomorrow? All predictions come with endless caveats — as much research and many famous quotes will tell us — but nonetheless:
Members of Congress attempting to get TikTok’s CEO to make assurances under oath. Whenever any technology executive testifies to Congress, there is often at least one member who attempts to make the executive promise things under oath about the company’s data privacy practices, cybersecurity practices, views on competition, and so on. Sometimes, this is pursued to just get comments on the record; in other cases, this is done with the view that having a promise to point to when crisis strikes could better enable accountability and critique. Hence, this is already likely in any tech hearing. But given the national security concerns about TikTok, and the Chinese government’s potential influence over the application and its parent company, it is far more likely that some members will attempt to make Shou Zi Chew promise things or make declarations under oath. For example, some members of Congress might want him to state under oath that TikTok has never received data requests from the Chinese government or has never received content-related demands from the Chinese government, whether they believe those statements to be credible or not.
Members of Congress looking for soundbites and to promote their issues. All high-profile hearings have strong political dimensions. In the case of tomorrow’s TikTok hearing, these soundbites could range from some members promoting the need for a comprehensive privacy law — which is absolutely needed to regulate private-sector data abuses, including to protect national security; to some members promoting specific measures that would place restrictions on TikTok and/or, broadly, non-US tech companies, products, and services; to some members trying to out-China-bash one another in discussing the Chinese government’s surveillance, espionage, and censorship activities at home and abroad.
Discussion of the RESTRICT Act. It is also quite possible that members discuss the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, introduced by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and Senator John Thune (R-SD), and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of other senators. The bill would create a framework by which the Department of Commerce would conduct security reviews of information and communications technology (ICT) transactions that pose “undue” risks to national security. It also contains provisions that would enable a spectrum of possible actions in response to an undue risk, allow the government to declassify evidence and/or reasoning behind a decision, and supersede the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which former President Trump invoked in August 2020 to ban TikTok — and was then struck down in the courts. (I will have a lengthy Lawfare article on the RESTRICT Act and another TikTok-related Congressional bill, as well as IEEPA and related issues, out shortly.)
TikTok hitting the competition angle. In its public relations efforts over the last several months, TikTok has consistently stressed the amount of money (it says around $1.5 billion) it has spent making technical and corporate changes in the process of negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the executive branch, interagency committee that reviews certain foreign investments in the US for national security risks. TikTok has also been stressing that it believes that no other major US technology company has done this much to assuage the US government’s concerns about data privacy, cybersecurity, and content. The obvious counterpoint is that the other large tech firms TikTok is referring to, such as Meta and Twitter, are not owned by a major Chinese tech firm. Nonetheless, in tomorrow’s hearing, Shou Zi Chew is likely to stress this fact and reiterate that he believes a ban hurts competition in the US. (His written testimony indeed already mentions the competition point.)
The hearing will be an important development, especially politically speaking, in how Congress and the executive branch are thinking about pursuing restrictions on TikTok out of concerns over data access, content manipulation, and national security. Anyone watching this space (or using TikTok) should tune in.
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