For a brief moment in a five-hour House hearing on Thursday, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew let his frustration show. Asked if TikTok was prepared to split off from its Chinese parent company if ordered to do so by the U.S. government, to safeguard Americans’ online data, Chew went on offense.
“I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect: American social companies don’t have a great record with privacy and data security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” Chew said, referring to the 2018 scandal in which Facebook users’ data was found to have been secretly harvested years earlier by a British political consulting firm.
He’s not wrong. At a hearing in which TikTok was often portrayed as a singular, untenable threat to Americans’ online privacy, it would have been easy to forget that the country’s online privacy problems run far deeper than any single app. And the people most responsible for failing to safeguard Americans’ data, arguably, are American lawmakers.
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The bipartisan uproar over TikTok’s Chinese ownership stems from the concern that China’s laws could allow its authoritarian government to demand or clandestinely gain access to sensitive user data, or tweak its algorithms to distort the information its young users see. The concerns are genuine. And yet the United States has failed to bequeath Americans most of the rights it now accuses TikTok of threatening.
While the European Union has far-reaching privacy laws, Congress has not agreed on national privacy legislation, leaving Americans’ online data rights up to a patchwork of state and federal laws. In the meantime, reams of data on Americans’ shopping habits, browsing history and real-time location, collected by websites and mobile apps, is bought and sold on the open market in a multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry. If the Chinese Communist Party wanted that data, it could get huge volumes of it without ever tapping TikTok. (In fact, TikTok says it has stopped tracking U.S. users’ precise location, putting it ahead of many American apps on at least one important privacy front.)
That point was not entirely lost on the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which convened Thursday’s hearing. Last year, their committee became the first to advance a comprehensive data privacy bill, hashing out a hard-won compromise. But it stalled amid qualms from House and Senate leaders.
Likewise, worries about TikTok’s addictive algorithms, its effects on teens’ mental health, and its hosting of propaganda and extreme content are common to its American rivals, including Google’s YouTube and Meta’s Instagram. Congress has not meaningfully addressed those, either.
And if Chinese ownership is the issue, TikTok has plenty of company there, as well: A glance at Apple’s iOS App Store rankings earlier this week showed that four of the top five apps were Chinese-owned: TikTok, its ByteDance sibling CapCut, and the online shopping apps Shein and Temu.
The enthusiasm for cracking down on TikTok in particular is understandable. It’s huge, it’s fast-growing, and railing against it allows lawmakers to position themselves simultaneously as champions of American children and tough on China. Banning it would seem to offer a quick fix to the problems lawmakers spent five hours on Thursday lamenting.
And yet, without an overhaul of online privacy laws, it ignores that those problems exist on all the other apps that haven’t been banned.
“In most ways, they’re like most of the Big Tech companies,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said of TikTok after the hearing. “They can use Americans’ data any way they want.” She and several other committee members said they’d prefer to address TikTok as part a broader privacy bill, rather than a one-off ban.
But the compromises required to pass big legislation can be politically costly, while railing against TikTok costs nothing. If Chew can take any consolation from Thursday’s hearing, it’s that congressional browbeating of tech companies are far more common than congressional action against them.
For an example, he has only to look at the one he raised in that moment of frustration: For all the hearings, all the grilling of Mark Zuckerberg over Cambridge Analytica, Russian election interference and more, Facebook is still here — and now Congress has moved on to a new scapegoat.