The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on March 23 titled “TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms.” During the five-hour-long hearing, the Committee explored national security concerns with TikTok’s consumer data privacy and security, surveillance practices and algorithmic configuration. The hearing’s lone witness, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew, attempted to assuage the Committee’s concerns.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) set the hearing’s tone by delivering scathing opening remarks—accusing TikTok of allowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use their platform to access personal data, surveil and manipulate Americans. Rep. Rodgers stated, “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation.” Not holding back, she opined, “[y]our platform should be banned.” 

What’s the big deal about TikTok?

TikTok is a social media platform owned by China-based tech company ByteDance. TikTok’s platform has disrupted the industry and continues to shape the future of online content creation and consumption. Launched in 2017, TikTok has active users worldwide and 150 million in the United States alone, and quickly ascended to one of the most popular apps among American youths. The app allows users to create and share short-form videos, and its algorithm is designed to curate content tailored to each user’s interests, making it addictive and engaging.

Despite TikTok’s popularity, its ties to the CCP have many U.S. politicians in bipartisan agreement that there are unprecedented threats to U.S. national security from the potential of Americans’ sensitive data being accessed and content manipulated by an adversarial foreign government. The 2023 Annual Threat Assessment and the National Cybersecurity Strategy note China as an active cyber espionage threat to U.S. security. Many states and federal intelligence agencies have banned TikTok from government-owned digital devices. In 2020, the Trump administration attempted to force TikTok to sell its U.S. operations to a group of U.S. buyers. More recently, the Biden administration has also threatened to ban TikTok in the United States if Chinese shareholders do not sell their ownership.

TikTok’s Proposed Strategy

TikTok’s strategy to dodge divestment has not deviated much from its close call of being outright banned in the United States during the Trump administration. Throughout the hearing, Chew revealed TikTok’s threefold strategy: First, promote the value of TikTok’s platform to “inspire creativity” and allow free expression without any government influence for their 150 million American users. Second, address TikTok’s data privacy and security practices with “Project Texas,” such as building a “firewall” around data stored on American soil and access controls that might nullify CCP access to American data. Third, emphasize their commitment to transparency by allowing third parties “unprecedented access to the related algorithms and data models” that power the platform’s user experience. 

Ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D–N.J.) said he did not believe that building a “firewall” or relocating TikTok’s data storage to American soil would alleviate his concerns that the CCP would still “control and have influence” over TikTok’s business. Rep. Jay Obernolte (R–Calif.), a former software engineer, explained that he does not believe TikTok can accomplish its “Project Texas” goals of removing vulnerabilities from foreign influences because there are “too many backdoors” to the technological processes. And more straightforward, Rep. Neal Dunn (R–Fla.) told Chew, “We don’t find you credible on the [answers provided].” Overall, the Committee seemed unpersuaded by this strategy—and other than the Chinese owner’s divestment, perhaps no strategy would have been persuasive. 

While there is overwhelming bipartisan support for protecting Americans from the CCP’s alleged influence over TikTok’s business practices and potential practices it might employ, how that protection might materialize is unclear. Rep. Darren Soto (D–Fla.), perhaps mirroring the Trump and Biden administrations, stated that TikTok needs to be an “American company, with American values.”

The United States needs a comprehensive federal privacy and security law

Several Congress members stated that passing a comprehensive federal privacy and security law is essential to national security. Several members alluded to the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) which made significant leaps in the 117th Congress. Rep. Rodgers stated that banning TikTok is only a short-term solution and that the Committee was looking toward the future to pass a national data privacy and security standard. Rep. Obernolte noted that TikTok’s immense data gathering is not unique—all social media companies do it, and the solution to protect that data is to enact a comprehensive federal privacy and security standard.

R Street’s Position

The R Street Institute recognizes the concerns that were raised before, during and after the hearing by members of Congress. The CCP’s potential access to TikTok’s U.S. users’ personal data and ability to influence Americans with pro-CCP content is a concern. Also, TikTok itself has experienced instances where individuals inappropriately accessed user data. To this point, R Street’s Cybersecurity and Emerging Threats Director Brandon Pugh emphasized in his congressional testimony that the CCP has a history of widespread data collection on its citizens and individuals around the world. However, focusing on just one company or one adversarial country does not solve the problem. For example, there are other applications, software and hardware from adversarial nations that pose risks. We believe a federal comprehensive privacy and security law is a key step to addressing many of these concerns, even if it is not the complete solution. For example, the ADPPA would have done that through its data minimization, data security and notice provisions. It is essential to national security and would provide all Americans with privacy and security protections.