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The US House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee welcomed TikTok CEO Shou Chew yesterday, though "welcome" might not be the word that he would use, as both Republicans and Democrats repeatedly attacked his company as a national security risk tied to the Chinese Communist Party.

The appearance came as TikTok's ownership and influence have become matters of international debate.  The Biden administration, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has called for its parent company, ByteDance, to spin off its US operations in a way that would completely separate the two entities.  Short of a separation, it is possible that the US Congress and the Biden administration could ban TikTok from the US.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has said it opposes a forced spin off of TikTok's US business.

The Information reports that "Chew largely reiterated points shared by the company in the past, including highlighting its Project Texas initiative to sequester U.S. user data with partner Oracle, which he said TikTok has already spent $1.5 billion on. 'TikTok is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,' Chew said. He said TikTok was 'building what amounts to a firewall to seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access.'

"During the roughly five hour testimony, Chew largely stuck to TikTok’s talking points or tried to deflect lawmakers’ questions on Chinese government policy. He did admit that some ByteDance employees in China have access to data stored in the U.S., although he said that will no longer be the case once Project Texas is done."

The New York Times describes the hearing as "a rare display of bipartisan unity that was harsher in tone than previous congressional hearings featuring American executives of social media companies," and that "Republican and Democratic lawmakers repeatedly asked Mr. Chew if TikTok was spying on Americans on behalf of the Chinese government, cut him off midsentence and angrily demanded 'yes' or 'no' answers from him."

The Times goes on:

"Over the past few years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have increasingly coalesced around the growing animus against Chinese businesses in the United States, with government bans on exports to Chinese telecommunications companies and several bills that aim to limit TikTok and other technologies tied to hostile foreign governments.

"At the hearing, more than 50 lawmakers expressed deep skepticism of Mr. Chew’s defense. They portrayed TikTok as a danger to national security, accusing it of invading people’s privacy, harming the mental health of teenagers and leading to the deaths of some young people. August Pfluger, a Republican lawmaker from Texas, told Mr. Chew that the chief executive had inspired political unity that hadn’t been seen in three or four years."

And, the Washington Post writes:

"The hearing exposed no new evidence to support lawmakers’ unsubstantiated claims that the Chinese government has abused TikTok to access Americans’ user data or promote government propaganda. Yet lawmakers appeared atypically focused in their concerns about the national security threat of the app.

"Bipartisan momentum to ban or otherwise restrict TikTok has been growing on Capitol Hill. The White House-endorsed legislation, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, is now backed by 20 senators from both parties, lead sponsor Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Wednesday."

KC's View:

I'm not an expert on this stuff, but is strains credulity to say that the Chinese government does not have influence over ByteDance and TikTok, and is able to manipulate their operations to its own advantage.  Wasn't Jack Ma, the cofounder of Alibaba, essentially taken off the global technology playing field after he criticized Chinese financial regulators?

Beyond that, there also are issues about how TikTok and its social media brethren are affecting the mental health of young people.  I think it is entirely fair to say that social media is creating a national health crisis among teens, and that regulators ought to be as harsh with the tech industry as they were with the tobacco business.

There will almost certainly be challenges to any attempt to ban TikTok, possible led by businesses that use social media sites to peddle their products and influence young minds.  The battle will play out in the courts, but there are enough significant concerns that this deserves a nuanced and very public discussion.