Discussions about banning TikTok, the shortform video app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, have seen politicians in the US and internationally accusing it of being a tool for propaganda and a security risk. Attempts to force a sale of TikTok began under the Trump administration and have continued in the US under the administration of President Biden but so far have been unsuccessful.
In the meantime, a slew of TikTok bans across the US have barred the app from devices tied to universities, as well as government hardware at the state, local, and federal levels.
While some experts say there’s no evidence the app has done any more damage or risked user privacy beyond what we’ve seen from companies like Facebook or Google, politicians have continued to raise the prospect of attempting to ban TikTok entirely. A March congressional hearing where members grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew doesn’t appear to have helped matters much.
Read on for all the latest news on a potential TikTok ban in the US.
Inside the US government’s fight to ban TikTokFor nearly three years, the US government has tried to ban TikTok.
Concerns over the app’s alleged risks to national security have spanned two presidential administrations and forged alliances among Republicans and Democrats. At a time of heightened partisanship, TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, have become the focus of anti-China policy — a convenient villain most lawmakers are prepared to fight.
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Montana state legislature votes to ban TikTok from app stores in the state.
The bill (PDF) now waits to be signed by Montana governor Greg Gianforte. It would penalize app stores $10,000 per violation per day for distributing TikTok.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said to CNN that “The bill’s champions have admitted that they have no feasible plan for operationalizing this attempt to censor American voices and that the bill’s constitutionality will be decided by the courts… We will continue to fight for TikTok users and creators in Montana whose livelihoods and First Amendment rights are threatened by this egregious government overreach.”
The TikTok ban is a betrayal of the open internetImage: Becca Farsace / The Verge
Back in the ancient days of July 2009, I was in Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, when the Chinese government banned Facebook and Twitter.
I was in college doing a Mandarin language study, and the months after that ban are the most distinctly American that I have ever felt. I spent the rest of the year accessing my friends’ status updates through Tor and an increasingly shady series of VPNs, constantly bemused by the experience of typing an address into a browser and being unable to reach it. This was the World Wide Web! The information superhighway! And here I was, walled off from a huge section of it in the name of being protected from the dangers of information itself.
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The Vergecast watched the TikTok hearing so you don’t have to.
And we bring you the best parts, including Grapefruit Theories and WiFi Problems and The One About The Eyes. We also talk about Bard and ChatGPT… but mostly The One About The Eyes. It’s the Vergecast! This is what hearings do to us.
More on the Vergecast tomorrow.
Congress seems more determined to ban TikTok than everTikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appears before Congress to defend the platform against a ban. Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge
TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, seemed to arrive at the Capitol well-prepared.
Taking his seat before dozens of House Energy and Commerce Committee members Thursday, he opened a packet of notes, diligently indexed with sticky notes. In the packet, there appeared to be a sheet matching the names and faces of the lawmakers preparing to question him — many of whom had already made up their minds over whether the app was safe for Americans.
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There are a lot of legitimate criticisms of TikTok, but this hearing is deeply embarrassing.
It’s all been like this. Help.
We’ve been in recess, but we’re back with a series of questions about why TikTok hasn’t removed more content about drugs, including people selling drugs and a Wall Street Journal article about adult content showing up in children’s feeds. Chew’s line is that no company can moderate perfectly — but it’s not going over well.
“I don’t think ownership is the issue here.”
Rep. Darren Soto asks whether TikTok would consider spinning off from ByteDance, and Chew makes a jab it’s taken a surprising amount of time for him to reach. “I don’t think ownership is the issue here,” he says. “With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, for one example.”
“Any TikTok or ByteDance data that is viewed, stored, or passes through China is subject to the laws of China.”
Neal Dunn (who has just compared TikTok to fentanyl and cancer) enters a 2022 Forbes article about TikTok surveillance into the record — casting doubt on Chew’s claims that it’s not a spying risk.
We’ve reached a break.
Over the last hour of the TikTok hearing, lawmaker questions have strayed away from TikTok’s alleged relationship with the Chinese government. Republicans and Democrats have been pulling a few TikTok videos portraying violent themes, including a post that appeared to threaten gun violence against the committee and its chairwoman.
Chair Rodgers did not allow Chew to respond to the threatening post, but he was able to comment on concerns lawmakers raised over the app’s ability to promote harmful challenges to young users.
“We have spent a lot of time adopting measures protecting teenagers,” Chew said. “Many of those are first for the social media industry.”
“It’s our understanding that they’re looking at the eyes.”
One of the long-running tropes of these hearings is “how much does anyone in the room, including the CEOs and the members of Congress, actually understand the tech at hand?”
To that end, I submit TikTok’s Shou Chew explaining that TikTok doesn’t collect body, face, or voice data to identify users, except when it needs to know where your eyes are for sunglasses filters and such. To which Georgia representative Buddy Carter responded: “Why do you need to see where the eyes are? To see if they’re dilated?”
When Chew explained TikTok’s age-gating process, Carter interjected: “That’s creepy. Tell me more about that.” Which is a good summation of the hearing so far, really.
“Unfortunately, we only have four and a half hours with you.”
Rep. McMorris-Rodgers has reminded me that we’re almost halfway through this hearing, and I’m dying. Here’s a picture of my cat Kaiser. Kaiser cannot understand English. Kaiser cannot listen to this hearing. Kaiser is so lucky.
Kaiser does not understand TikTok. Only skritches.
CitizenLab to TikTok: stop citing us to claim you’re secure!
Rep. Bill Johnson is grilling Chew on TikTok security, including TikTok citing a report from CitizenLab on its code’s security. CitizenLab’s director has said he’s “disappointed” that TikTok is — in his opinion — misconstruing the report as a claim that the Chinese government couldn’t get access to it.
We’re an hour into TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s hearing before Congress.
Right out of the gate, Republicans and Democrats attacked the company over its alleged ties to the Chinese government.
“Your platform should be banned,” Chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA) said in her opening statement Thursday.
At times, Democrats like Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. alluded to TikTok not being the only harmful platform, calling for federal data privacy legislation to better regulate the ways US-based companies like Meta and Google collect and share data.
Still, Congress has yet to approve any meaningful federal privacy framework even though the Biden administration has called on TikTok to either sever ties to Bytedance or be banned nationwide.
The TikTok hearing’s first printed-out screenshot!
It’s a threat to shoot members of the congressional committee investigating TikTok. Rep. Kat Cammack says that because somebody was able to post the video on TikTok, TikTok can’t possibly be keeping private user data secure. I agree it’s bad TikTok didn’t take down the video, but… this is not a very logical argument.
“They could get devastatingly incorrect information.”
Rep. Diana DeGatte asks Chew what TikTok can do to limit medical misinformation, including viral claims about herbs that can induce abortion. To its credit, the House did in fact try to take the step that would really guarantee safe abortion: legalize it nationwide.
“Do you believe TikTok deserves this liability protection under Section 230?”
Bob Latta mentions a case of Section 230 protecting TikTok from liability after a child died participating in a challenge trend. Section 230 has come up a couple times in the hearing — which isn’t surprising, since it’s a perpetual congressional punching bag.
“Why would the Chinese government sidestep their own law?”
Anna Eshoo points out how difficult it is to prove the Chinese government couldn’t compel TikTok to disclose data, no matter how many safeguards TikTok adds.
Chew starts explaining its plans for Oracle to safeguard data: “Our plan is to move American data to be stored on American soil—”
“You’re sidestepping,” Eshoo says.
Would China even let ByteDance sell TikTok?
Rep. Michael Burgess has officially entered an article published by The Wall Street Journal this morning casting doubt on whether the Chinese government could block a TikTok sale.
China’s Commerce Ministry said Thursday that a sale or divestiture of TikTok would involve exporting technology and had to be approved by the Chinese government.
The reported efforts by the Biden administration would severely undermine global investors’ confidence in the U.S., said Shu Jueting, a ministry spokeswoman.
“Is it accurate to say that you are in regular communication with the CEO of ByteDance?”
McMorris Rodgers is pushing at Chew’s connections with CCP-affiliated ByteDance executives. Chew has a heavily bookmarked packet of notes — he’s not getting much of a chance to talk, but he’s writing in the margins as she speaks.
“I could talk all day about how TikTok enriches people’s lives.”
Shou Zi Chew is delivering his opening statements, which you can read here. A sampling:
Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country. However, for the reasons discussed above, you don’t simply have to take my word on that. Rather, our approach has been to work transparently and cooperatively with the U.S. government and Oracle to design robust solutions to address concerns about TikTok’s heritage.
The TikTok hearings start with broadsides on Big Tech.
TikTok is on the witness stand today, but introductory statements from Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Frank Pallone are also hitting on general-purpose anti-social media talking points, including privacy reform. “I know this is about TikTok, but I’m focusing all my attention not only on TikTok, but on these wide concerns about social media,” Pallone says.
We’re on the ground at the TikTok ban hearing.
Our policy reporter Makena Kelly is in Washington, DC live at the hearing, where Shou Zi Chew has just walked in.