TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before Congress on Thursday, and much of the conversation will center on whether the United States should ban the app altogether. But focusing on a TikTok ban without also addressing the pervasive issues shared by US-based social media companies would be a grave mistake.
Congress is right to scrutinize the national security implications of TikTok. The company is based in China and subject to laws that could allow the Chinese government to force TikTok to hand over users’ data. That’s why the federal government has been in negotiations with Chew and TikTok leadership to remove the threat of Americans’ data falling into the wrong hands, including pushing for the company’s sale.
There’s a valid argument for passing legislation that strengthens the Biden administration’s hand in those negotiations. Like many of my colleagues, I could support the bipartisan proposal to limit foreign adversary-controlled tech companies’ ability to operate in the United States if they pose an undue risk to our national security.
However, we cannot afford to pass this legislation, watch the administration ban or force a sale of TikTok, and declare victory in the fight to rein in the abuses of dominant Big Tech companies. And there are a plethora of reasons for that.
Many of the same national security and foreign influence threats we see with TikTok could and in some cases already have happened on American-owned platforms. We know that Twitter has hired foreign agents. Google has flip-flopped on working with authoritarian regimes, including the Chinese Communist Party, looking to censor their citizens. And the widespread Russian attempt to meddle in the 2016 presidential election included an influence operation targeting Americans on Facebook.
Focusing only on the threats posed by foreign companies while ignoring similar dangers created entirely by the failures of their US rivals does little to protect our national security in the long term.
Furthermore, the issues that parents care about most when it comes to their children’s use of social media are just as prevalent on apps like Instagram as they are on TikTok, if not more so. But when I’ve met with Meta and Google executives over the past two years, they acted like the negative self-image, bullying, and device addiction amplified by their services don’t exist. It’s no wonder that Instagram for Kids never worked out and YouTube had to be pressured to make its service safer for children.
Meanwhile, TikTok has become one of the most popular apps among young people. And while children on TikTok still suffer from the same problems, at least Chew admitted these harms exist and talked about what his company is doing to address them when he met with me earlier this month. Make no mistake, TikTok has a long way to go to protect children and teens, but this acknowledgement is a small step parents like me wish more platforms would take.
Finally, the American people have to understand how TikTok went from a relatively obscure part of the national security conversation to a full-blown proxy as tensions escalate with China. The short answer: Big Tech corporations in America.
Companies like Meta are monopolies. They dominate the digital marketplace and gobble up competitors to maintain their multi-billion-dollar profits. And when the opposition refuses to sell, Meta eliminates them. TikTok has been a rising threat to Meta’s dominance for years, with its new usership outpacing Meta-owned rival Instagram and causing Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to fret at the “unprecedented level of competition.”
Since acquiring TikTok wasn’t an option, Meta has been working to kill the app. It launched a covert lobbying campaign to shift public opinion against TikTok, and the effort was enormously effective. Negative headlines began appearing nationwide, with stories fabricated by a premier consulting firm spreading like wildfire on Facebook before being covered by media outlets.
With support growing in Washington for legislation to protect data privacy, stop anti-competitive conduct, and require transparency from social media companies, it’s no surprise that companies hoping to maintain their obscene profits want to redirect that energy toward TikTok. It’s incumbent on Congress that it not become pawns in the tech wars.
Instead, when Chew testifies Thursday, members should seek to address TikTok’s national security concerns without letting Big Tech CEOs off the hook. We should pass legislation to strengthen the administration’s hand in negotiations with TikTok without giving up the fight for strong, bipartisan tech reforms.
But doing one without the other would be letting this moment slip through our fingers. And it would be a tremendous disservice to the hundreds of millions of Americans we represent who use these services — particularly our children and teens.
US Representative Lori Trahan, who represents Massachusetts’ Third Congressional District, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.