TikTok’s Congressional Disaster
pirate wires #93 // amidst growing bi-partisan support of a ban, summary and analysis of tiktok’s first congressional hearing
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Welcome to America, we hate you. Thursday morning, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a grueling 5+ hour hearing to defend the right — we quickly learned — of TikTok to exist. Out of the gate, there was broad, bi-partisan agreement the app was dangerous, had already abused the data of 150 million Americans, and had almost certainly led to CCP spying. “TikTok is a weapon,” Committee Chairwoman Rodgers succinctly stated. A large subset of questions, mostly from Democrats but also including many Republicans, further targeted the company in a manner more familiar to tech executives not owned by the Chinese Communist Party: you are literally killing our women and children, and also (exclusively Democrats) “misinforming” the population. In this way, our congressional leaders managed to argue for Chinese-style authority while demanding protection from Chinese authority.
"My time is up, and if this Committee gets its way TikTok's time is up." — Congressman Weber
Cutting against the tenor of the hearing, there are quite a few early signals the TikTok ban won’t happen. From sitting Democratic Senators like Chuck Schumer, who won’t commit to a ban, to popular right-wing talking heads like Kellyanne Conway, opinion in D.C. isn’t directly mapping to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. I’ve also now heard from multiple Republican operatives that TikTok lobbyists have flooded the Hill, targeting the GOP in particular (presumably given the DNC is already softer on the issue). Generally, the sense among swamp creatures is TikTok will survive. But you would never know that listening today.
In the hearing, it was often difficult to disentangle a broad and growing bi-partisan hatred of the technology industry from a very specific hatred of TikTok, which took considerable fire as a stand-in for China. Chew was eviscerated by politicians who had already made up their mind on TikTok, and who, for the most part, didn’t seem particularly interested in actually hearing answers from the CEO — though they often attacked him for failing to speak.
You can view the full hearing here:
Or, you can read through the CliffsNotes with my full live tweet, beginning here:
Now, without further ado, my dispatch from the most brutal tech hearing I have ever seen.
Sparing no time for pleasantries, Committee Chairwoman Kathy Rodgers opened the hearing by asserting her desire to ban TikTok, directly alleging the CCP uses TikTok to spy on Americans. Some other things that piss her off: propaganda, self-harm, and drug abuse. Ranking member Frank Pallone followed up for Democrats, immediately solidifying the overall theme of bi-partisanship. His position, roughly: 'I agree with Cath, but the real problem here is Big Tech generally.' I assumed this was just a carrot for his Silicon Valley-loathing base, which might give him cover as he pushed for a ban on an app that generally amplifies left-wing political positions, and this assumption was more or less confirmed as Pallone drove forward from the topics of censorship and misinformation to the CCP. But several Democrats throughout the hearing were at least as concerned with Facebook mining data to serve us ads for fancy leather boots as they were with the specter of Xi Jinping’s access to 150 million American keystroke records.
Next, Shou Zi Chew began his opening statement, one of the few times he was permitted to actually speak.
First of all, Chew weakly argued, we are doing a ton of STEM videos. Like, TikTok is basically just educational content. We fucking love science, okay? You love science, we love science, we all love science here (later, he insisted, “BookTok” was also very big on the spy app). But most importantly, TikTok is basically an American company. Okay, many Americans work for this company! Not me, of course, and none of the people at… what was that? ByteDance? I have never heard the name “ByteDance” in my life.
Chew finally introduced Project Texas, with his company’s intention to extricate itself from Beijing’s grip. Though this grip — he also insisted — does not exist.
In follow-up questioning, Rodgers correctly linked TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, which is run by the CCP, directly to Beijing. This chain of authority was invoked throughout the hearing, with the following central issue repeatedly stressed: in China, whatever the government wants is law. If Xi wants data collected on Americans, data will be collected on Americans. This will be done in secret, and anyone who subverts Xi’s desire will be imprisoned or worse. TikTok’s scantily-clad dancing thinkfluencers seem not to understand this basic point, but life under authoritarianism is different than life in a democratic republic.
Chew denied China had any influence over TikTok, and Rodgers explained it was illegal for Chew to lie before Congress — the first instance of an implicit threat wielded throughout the hearing.
“To the American people watching today,” Rodgers succinctly stated, “TikTok is a weapon.”
Next, Pallone wasn’t sold on Project Texas. But he tabled it for a moment, and asked if TikTok would commit to no longer targeting Americans younger than 17 with marketing. Chew insisted TikTok did not target Americans younger than 17 with marketing, but also refused to commit to not targeting Americans younger than 17 with marketing. (???)
Congressman Burgess cited alarming reporting from the Wall Street Journal, and asked why the Chinese government seemed to believe it could itself prevent a sale of TikTok. This would, of course, quite problematically imply Beijing authority over the TikTok leadership here adamantly insisting no such authority existed. No good answers here.
Burgess continued: Mr. Chew, did anyone, aside from your lawyers, prepare you for this hearing?
Chew refused to deny members of the Chinese Communist Party helped him prepare, because he couldn’t. He prepared for this hearing with ByteDance lawyers and employees, he said. But many ByteDance employees are CCP members, as there is no way to do business in an authoritarian country without supporting its single dominant party. Chew attempted to dodge the question by insisting “no government officials” had spoken with him. Nobody believed this, and more importantly nobody cared. In the context of China, all that matters is party loyalty. Only an idiot or a spy could fail to grasp this basic point.
Burgess: Let’s fuck up Mexican drug dealers, by the way. Chew: I’m down.
Rare W for everyone.
Congresswoman Eshoo was up for the Democrats.
Eshoo: why would the CCP allow you to “protect” American data? They have the data. They love the data. Chew: the Chinese government has never seen American data, the data just happens — in some ambiguous but not-at-all threatening sense — to sometimes be in China. But we promise to move it. Eshoo: is this a joke?
Chew rattled off a handful of nice words and phrases: “transparency,” “third parties,” “other tech companies.”
Then Congressman Lata invoked Section 230, before quickly pivoting to something called the “blackout challenge” on TikTok, which apparently — tragically — led to the death of a young girl who attempted the challenge.
This is very sad. But I fail to understand why we’re talking about it with the CEO of TikTok. My sense is young people should simply have parents. But back to the summary.
Congressman Hudson: Thank you for coming, you are a spy.
Chew continued to be peppered, relentlessly, with difficult and actually reasonable questions (something I’m not used to from Congress). He was asked about compensation trails, the genesis of TikTok’s architecture, TikTok’s chain of authority, and how Project Texas could possibly guarantee a broken tie to Beijing given the overall murkiness of TikTok’s design. An important point, and one that applies to most large tech companies, if not all of them: these codebases are sufficiently enormous, produced over many years, and by countless engineers, that it’s simply not clear what’s there, let alone what’s hiding there.
Florida rep Kat Cammack came in hot with billboards.
You’ve used the word transparency a half dozen times, she began, but ByteDance has gone out of its way to hide its corporate structure, and its ties to the CCP. The company’s website has been scrubbed. Why did a corporate memo from TikTok request you “downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI”??
Congresswoman Matsui invoked “harmful content,” an important theme among Democrats. But some Republicans joined in as well, including Bilirakis, who actually invited parents of a dead teenager to the hearing, and asked them to stand up while he spoke. “Your company destroyed their lives,” he said. The parents began to cry.
One interesting element of the hearing today was the degree to which Chew didn’t even attempt to balance a need for openness against “consumer harm.” Everything “bad” should be removed, he agreed repeatedly. Everything the Congressmen didn’t like — happy to delete that. This was really the bizarre undercurrent of the whole hearing. Unlike American tech execs, who have repeatedly expressed concern over the government’s demand for censorship, TikTok is happy to censor because TikTok leaders don’t adhere to American free speech norms. And neither do many of our Congressmen.
Kathy Castor, bringing pure Democrat energy: we need to talk about Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower (NOTE: complete bullshit, check out my prior coverage here).
Republican Congressmen Johnson and Obernolte were probably the two most well-versed in security, and asked a series of pointed questions on the topic. Johnson came in brutal, and visibly angry, insisting TikTok distorted the findings of a security review, quoting the reviewers actually making the charge.
Obernolte was polite, and softspoken, if equally firm. He mentioned code reviews, data analysis, and asked about TikTok’s software configuration management system (I’m getting goosebumps, oh baby). He also mentioned his desire for comprehensive federal data privacy legislation, and wanted to know where TikTok’s code review would be taking place in accordance with Project Texas.
Later, Obernolte asked about TikTok’s intended migration of user data to an Oracle cloud infrastructure, done by end of year? When it’s complete, who will have access? Chew explained TikTok’s data security would be led by an American team. But what would prevent someone with detailed knowledge of the app’s architecture from creating a clone and interacting directly with Oracle, Obernolte asked. No answers here, in the realm of hypotheticals.
Obernolte simply didn’t believe Project Texas could resecure user data. Later, Congressman Fulcher and Congressman Peters concurred. Peters further pressed Chew on whether the CCP would ultimately need to approve Project Texas. Chew dodged the question.
Sarbanes: Protect our kids!
Walberg: Again, and I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it seems the Chinese Communist Party literally controls this company lol. Chew: sure, but “Project Texas.”
Congresswoman Clarke mixed it up with an absolutely incoherent line of… I mean it wasn’t really questioning so much as the leveling of unfounded accusations. She didn’t care about China, she cared about black content creators. And by the way, why did you ban BLM stuff? Chew attempted to respond, but was shut down.
To her credit, amidst a storm of largely ridiculous Washington Post analysis on YouTube, Taylor Lorenz correctly lambasted Clarke’s claim, as well as the parroting of that claim by one of her colleagues. Not only did the BLM censorship never happen, she insisted, TikTok amplified BLM content throughout the summer months of 2020.
Clarke rounded out her questioning with the insistence TikTok is specifically not paying black content creators. No evidence was presented.
Carter: how many kids have you killed?
In an interesting, budding subgenre of Democratic hysteria, Congressman Cardenas focused on the topic of Spanish-language “misinformation” (defined as ‘content Democrats disagree with, but in the Spanish language’). These concerns were echoed by both Congresswoman Barragan and Congressman Ruiz.
Cardenas concluded with a comparison of Chew to Zuckerberg, who he doesn’t like.
Dingell: murdered women!
Congressman Dunn: has ByteDance spied on US citizens? Chew: No. Dunn: interesting, but here is some evidence ByteDance has attempted to spy on US citizens. Your answers, Mr. Chew, have not been credible today.
Chew: (correctly, we regret to report) “Congressman, you have given me no time to answer questions.”
Congressman Curtis grilled Chew on 230, and the difference between publishers and distributors. Chew clearly understood the significance of this — if Congress meaningfully alters 230, it could make all tech companies legally liable for content produced on their platforms, which would shut down every social media company overnight. Clearly overwhelmed, Chew never managed a defense against the point.
One of the most important moments of the hearing followed questioning concerning the Uyghur Muslims in China. Congresswoman Lesko led the charge on this topic, asking two questions that will likely be conflated in coverage. On one hand, there was the nebulous question of whether TikTok censored information on the Uyghurs (an echo of earlier questions concerning the Tiannamen Square massacre). This was the question Chew preferred to answer, as the topic is confusing, and obscures a much more problematic question:
“Do you agree the Chinese government has persecuted the Uyghur population,” Lesko asked.
Chew pivoted back to content.
“That's not my question,” said Lesko. “My question is do you agree the Chinese government has persecuted the Uyghur population?”
Chew refused to answer. He only appeared before Congress to talk about TikTok, he insisted.
On one hand, this reminds me of the absolutely insane question previously leveled at Jack Dorsey concerning whether he personally took the Covid vaccine (Jack eventually answered, but never should have had to). Still, the Uyghur question feels meaningfully different. What we’re looking at, now, is our first of two examples concerning Chew’s inability to diverge from official CCP opinion on what should be a softball, the second example being Chew’s refusal to say he believed in the First Amendment. This problem is not specific to him. American actors and basketball players can’t say anything disfavored by the CCP, for example, most often concerning Taiwan. It’s a problem in any case, but especially where it concerns the CEO of a company responsible for 150 million American voices.
Later, Congresswoman Lori Trahan narrowly defeated Clarke for the dumbest commentary of the day. Many CEOs have sat where you are, she explained to Chew, ‘and they ran out the clock rather than answer questions.’ This is of course a total lie, as every prior congressional meeting has been equally as full of monologuing law makers entirely disinterred in the actual answers of their guests — check out Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick for an earlier wild ride.
Trahan then encouraged Chew, the CEO of what her colleagues all believe to be a spy app for a hostile foreign power, to defeat his American competitors. Be better, do more censorship, win.
Congresswoman Craig: many of your influencers are doing what they’re doing for all the right reasons (doubt it lol). But also: drugs. And finally: Project Texas is bullshit no offense, we can’t be sure it will happen, and even if it does we can’t be sure it matters given the architectural ambiguity of TikTok. This also means, given concerns with data review, it’s not clear a sale ameliorates the issue.
Congressman Allen: “I have fourteen grandchildren.”
Congresswoman Miller-Meeks: Does TikTok track keystrokes? Chew: Yes, for security purposes like protecting bots, not unlike many other companies.
Unlike many other companies, however, TikTok is controlled by the CCP.
At one point, Congressman Griffith sort of accidentally brought up one of my biggest problems with the “content moderation” discussion, centered on the topic of “consumer harm.” He texted his kids a little earlier, he said, and asked if they were really limited to 60 minutes of TikTok use as Chew insisted (I don’t recall Chew insisting this, for what it’s worth, and assume if he mentioned the 60-minute limit he was referring to a warning now pushed to adolescents). Griffith’s teens laughed at him, apparently, and reported back that they were not limited to 60 minutes of TikTok. How dare you, Griffith halfheartedly suggested to Chew.
But the real problem, of course, is Congressman Griffith’s parenting. Like, why are we pretending you aren’t responsible for your own children? Allegedly, you’re not even a standard-issue idiot. You’re a congressman. I do think, eventually, Americans will have to take some ownership over the fact that all of our kids appear to be incredibly stupid.
Finally, Congressman Crenshaw rounded out the hearing in a maelstrom of facts. Yes, he importantly noted, many social media companies have similar data practices as TikTok, and they could conceivably do many nefarious things with that data. But not every social media company is boasting 150 million American users under tacit control of the Chinese government. You are.
And they are. This is just true, and we need to address it.
Chew and Crenshaw danced around the issue for a while, with Chew insisting he didn’t know the political affiliation of the Chinese Communist Party members working for ByteDance, which nobody believed, and Crenshaw pressed further. Leaked audio from 80 meetings already indicate user data has moved to China. This is because, again, CCP members have no choice but to do what the CCP tells them to do, and then they are bound to secrecy.
Finally, Crenshaw appealed directly to American teenagers. You think we are old and out of touch, he began, but you are in danger. You may not care about your data today, including literally everything you have ever done on your phone. But you will grow up eventually, you will run this country yourself, and then — when it matters most — you will wonder why your parents never acted on this clear and present danger.
Living for Solana's live tweets from the hearing today. All partisanship aside, I would usually come down on the side of giving people more and not less options and on the side of more and not less speech. But on this issue, it's reciprocity that seals the deal. China doesn't allow any US social media apps - they're all banned, no Facebook, no Twitter, ditto for Google, YouTube, Insta, Snap and Slack. Those are just social media apps too - try accessing ANY US media behind the Great Firewall. Knowing that, I fail to see why we should err on the side of free speech here. Banning the app hurts very few but will definitely cause pain in China. Continuing to allow it benefits who in a very real way? Draw the line - shut it down.
They may appear to be enemies today, but what’s the bet they’ll all be friends tomorrow: “TikTok is happy to censor because TikTok leaders don’t adhere to American free speech norms. And neither do many of our Congressmen.”
‘Nuff said--thanks Mike!