TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew testified for a Congressional hearing where members of Congress asked him questions surrounding their concerns of national user security and harmful content with the platform’s relation to China.
Congress questioned Chew for five hours March 23, focusing on the app’s parent company, Beijing-headquartered ByteDance. The hearing comes after TikTok was banned on government devices in December 2022, and the University of Texas, Austin and Auburn University banned the app on university wifi due to security concerns in January.
The Biden Administration is pushing for TikTok’s Chinese investors to sell their shares in the company. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said it firmly opposes the forced sale of the app, according to CNN.
Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and Elon professor of journalism, spoke with Elon News Network and explained what the Congressional hearings could mean for students.
The North Carolina Open Government Coalition’s goal is to provide the public with governmental information, including records and meetings, according to its website.
What are Congress' concerns about security revolving around TikTok?
Congress appears to have a lot of concerns involving the way that young folks and teenagers use TikTok, as well as some national security concerns about how TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, and Congress is concerned about the data that Tiktok may or may not share with the Chinese government.
Is this something that Congress has ever done before with social media platforms?
Internet regulation at the congressional level has been really fraught ever since the mid 1990s. When new technology comes into the public domain and develops rapidly, Congress and senators and representatives in the House sometimes get very fearful of the implications of new technologies. There's certainly been a number of different ways that Congress has tried to rein in apps that are owned by foreign investment firms.
For instance, WeChat, which is a Chinese owned chat platform, kind of like WhatsApp, except it's also owned by a Chinese company. There were attempts to ban WeChat that came out of the Trump administration. … WeChat is very much still with us. I don't believe that they even enacted such a policy. They certainly didn't get such a policy through Congress. It never really came up for congressional debate. But TikTok is very much in their crosshairs because of the political moment — a little bit different than the way that WeChat was several years back.
From a legal side, how can Congress ban an app like this?
It is really difficult to envision a situation where Congress can pass a law outright banning a social media platform for all users in the United States. The reason for that is because we have really strong First Amendment principles and case law that prevents federal and state governments from issuing what are called prior restraints on speakers and especially on entire platforms. If Congress wants to pass a law that outright bans an entire platform, then they are required to show in court if it's ever challenged under the First Amendment. They're required to show in court that the ban is narrowly tailored to serve some really important, and in fact, compelling government interests. So they have to show that the ban is absolutely necessary to achieve some national security or privacy or some other interests that can't be accomplished any other way. And it's really difficult to envision, under our case law, a situation where the government can make that case well.
What do you see the outcome of this being?
Most likely, the way to get protections for users in terms of their private data and to protect users who are minors — so under the age of 18, or under the age of majority in whatever state it is — is to pass more comprehensive privacy protections that can be enacted through other federal agencies, but not necessarily to ban the platform outright. There's lots of ways that Congress could address privacy concerns by putting requirements on the social media platforms of all stripes and not just laser focusing on TikTok because that's their pet boogeyman at the current moment. We've seen examples of this in all types of companies, both digital platforms and not, where federal authorities can create regulations that make products safer for young folks, or they make the way that products are marketed safer for young folks. You don't necessarily have to toss out the entire platform in order to accomplish those objectives.
Is there anything else students should know about this topic?
This may not apply directly to you or students necessarily, but maybe it could foreseeably. You may have seen moves by state governments to ban TikTok on government owned and operated devices or on government owned and operated networks. Those are going to be treated under different standards than an outright ban that Congress is talking about. Because where, let's say at a public school or a state-run agency, there's going to be a stronger government interest in protecting the security of their government owned and operated networks. That doesn't really exist when we're talking about our private networks at home, and the networks that our phones access through our cell phone providers and things like that. So you may see bans that narrowly target government operated networks that might actually be viable that a total ban just would not be.