The future of TikTok is not looking too good. On Thursday, March 24, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of the US congress. They were everything but nice during the hearing. The core concern is national security, namely that ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok could give the Chinese government a way to access the personal data of the service’s 150 million US users. The federal government already bans its employees from installing the app on official devices, and it’s an increasingly similar story across state governments. There are also concerns that TikTok’s video recommendation algorithm could be used to promote China’s foreign policy goals.
Chew spent most of the hearing attempting to push back assertions that TikTok, or its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, are tools of the Chinese government. But he failed to answer uncomfortable questions about human rights abuses committed by China against the Uyghurs and seemed taken aback by a TikTok video displayed by one lawmaker that advocated for violence against the House committee holding the hearing.
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Chew told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied it’s a national security risk. He reiterated the company’s plan to protect U.S. user data by storing it on servers maintained and owned by the software giant Oracle.
Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country, chew said.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, Republican Rep. Kat Cammack played a TikTok video showing a shooting gun with a caption that included the House committee, with the exact date before it was formally announced.
You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room, Cammack said.
Committee members also showed a host of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same potentially dangerous content as the American product.
To avoid a ban, TikTok has been trying to sell officials on a $1.5 billion plan, Project Texas, which routes all U.S. user data to servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle. A complete TikTok ban in the U.S. would risk political and popular backlash from its young user base and civil liberties groups.
Where In The U.S. Is TikTok Banned?
TikTok was banned on all government-issued phones. While the ban applies only to government devices, some U.S. lawmakers are pushing for an outright ban on the app. China lashed out at the U.S. over the ban on government devices, describing it as an abuse of state power and a suppression of foreign businesses. More than half of U.S. states also have also banned TikTok from their government devices.
The University of Texas at Austin blocked access to the video-sharing app on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to remove the app from government-issued devices.
The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.
What Are TikTok’s Options?
Prior to the TikTok chief executive’s testimony this week, ByteDance had planned to remain a single company, while segregating data for American users of the app into a separate U.S.-based facility run by Oracle and routing any requests for that info through a data-security board. However, lawmakers weren’t convinced that the project, dubbed “Project Texas,” would protect U.S. users.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews transactions that could affect national security, has been pressuring ByteDance to spin off its U.S. subsidiary or sell it to an American company, CBS News has confirmed. However, China pushed back against this possibility Thursday, with a government spokesperson saying “China will firmly oppose” any forced sale of the app.
What Happens If TikTok Is Banned?
One law and technology expert said any TikTok ban wouldn’t kick in immediately, since the video platform and some users would likely challenge it in court. If a ban survived the lawsuits, it would most likely result in Apple and Google, who run the vast majority of smartphones in the U.S., removing TikTok from their app stores and turning off app updates.
Everyone who’s installed it would still have it. But my guess is that for everyone who has it on their phone, it would stop working in various ways, said Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.
A final decision has yet to be made. What will the younger generqtion do without TikTok?