Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Breakingviews – TikTok pile-on opens two cans of worms

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NEW YORK, March 23 (Reuters Breakingviews) – American lawmakers see TikTok as a problem. Yet the bipartisan attack on the short-form video app, owned by China-based ByteDance, really points to two different complications – and each, in turn, opens up a much bigger can of worms.

A panel of officials from the House of Representatives grilled TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew on Thursday, covering a range of issues including teenage mental health, legal protections for social media apps, fentanyl sales and censorship of content related to China’s treatment of Uyghurs. It was a hostile hearing; one member compared Chew to Meta Platforms’ (META.O) Mark Zuckerberg, citing the Facebook founder’s “nebulous answers” during his own hearings on Capitol Hill.

The overarching reason for Chew’s appearance is that President Joe Biden’s administration, and many in Congress, think TikTok’s Chinese backing makes it a dangerous tool of the People’s Republic. Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers accused TikTok of collecting biometric data and manipulating what information users see. But the assault on TikTok is confused. Some politicians focus on its collection of data; others on the ideas it allows to proliferate. These are different things.

Take the first one: data. It’s not just TikTok that potentially vacuums up consumer details while having close links to China. By that token, fast-fashion company Shein, which is seeking to raise $2 billion in an initial public offering, is a concern. So is PDD’s e-commerce service Temu, the 8th most downloaded shopping app last year, according to Apptopia. CapCut, a video editing tool owned by ByteDance, zipped up that list too. Is location data more sensitive than purchase history, or what a user watches? Lawmakers can’t seem to decide.

Then there’s TikTok’s influence over how Americans think. As a social media network, it could be a propaganda tool in certain hands. But so could U.S. rivals. Twitter, Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, and Alphabet’s (GOOGL.O) YouTube have been singled out for hosting misinformation campaigns. Having a Chinese parent could theoretically make TikTok susceptible to political pressure. So would having critical factories and customer groups in China, though. With that logic, most of the U.S. technology sector would be under suspicion.

Scrutinizing TikTok for privacy and persuasion isn’t wrong – but it’s a distraction from the bigger questions. Those require more resources and thought than Congress currently seems prepared to give.

Follow @jennifersaba on Twitter

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)


TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23. The hearing addressed national security concerns related to TikTok’s China-based parent ByteDance.

Editing by John Foley and Amanda Gomez

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

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