Recent events in the United States clearly show that we are moving backwards in time. With bills against LGBTQA+ individuals and banning of abortion rights in several states, individuals are losing their freedom to not only express themselves but exist. Despite the efforts to make the U.S. a safer space for every single individual, the ongoing xenophobia and ideological wars in the U.S. have started to resurface. Such ignorant behavior is about to get TikTok banned just because it is perceived to be a product of the Chinese Communist Party.
What is the Issue?
Recently TikTok has been found guilty for encouraging young individuals to act in dangerous ways due to challenges, which has even led to the death of several individuals. However, the issue that the United States had with TikTok started during the Trump Administration times when they prohibited U.S. companies from doing business with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. In 2021, Biden revoked this decision but expressed that TikTok had to sell its shares that are owned by Chinese organizations in order to continue their services in the United States.
Many people use TikTok as a tool to express their opinions and worries without the limit of freedom of expression. Large part of the U.S.’ population actively uses TikTok to voice their opinions, worries and passions with their close ones and the social media platform’s users. This hearing, in which the US had the goal of banning TikTok or gaining monetary revenue through the platform’s user-generated-data, partly determined the future of Americans’ ability to speak their mind without being censored or taken advantage of. Despite the court’s effort to shut down the intelligent answers of TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, he explained that “TikTok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government.” He continued to stress the best interest of the U.S. by explaining that “there are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform, and we know we have a responsibility to protect them.
Politicians Discussing Technology Without Knowing What is Technology
The United States is absolutely right about worrying for the youth’s wellbeing but considering the inherent characteristics of all social media, such concerns should not only apply to TikTok. During the hearing, the U.S. politicians made it clear that they had no idea about what the internet, social media nor artificial intelligence is. Yet, they continued to ask incomprehensible questions about how TikTok connects to Wi-Fi:
“Mr. Chew, does TikTok access the home Wi-Fi network?” Chew answered “Only if the user turns on the Wi-Fi, I’m sorry, I may not understand the question.” Hudson continued “So if I have the TikTok app on my phone and my phone is on my home Wi-Fi network, does TikTok access that network?”. “It would have to — to access the network to get connections to the internet, if that’s the question,” Chew said confused. “Is it possible, then, that it could access other devices on that home Wi-Fi network?” Hudson answered. Naturally, Chew was still stumped by the ridiculous question “Congressman, we do not do anything that is beyond any industry norms. I believe the answer to your question is no. It could be technical. Let me get back to you.”
Another topic that should make Congress ashamed for their attitude was U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter’s description of facial recognition. He asked Mr. Chew if the app collects facial data and if it tracks how people’s pupils get dilated for their algorithm. Chew naturally explained that the app does not collect facial, voice or body data to identify users, and that it only looks at where people’s eyes are so that you can use “filters to have sunglasses on your face.” Again, he was baffled when Carter asked “Why do you need to know where the eyes are if you’re not seeing if they’re dilated?”
It is clear that these congressmen had no idea about how the app works and only had speculations of what TikTok could be doing while collecting data. Such ideas without actual proof nor logical reasoning behind should have not been asked in a serious hearing as this.
Instead of protecting individuals, they were obviously more interested in expressing their own agenda.
Especially that TikTok has already put Project Texas in action, which is a firewall that protects US users’ data from getting accessed by unauthorized foreign organizations. So, American data will only be kept on American soil by American organizations and workers. Despite Mr. Chew’s effort to stress that the Chinese government cannot have access to American users’ data, the Congress representatives seemed overly xenophobic while asking illiterate and pathetic questions.
The Ongoing Xenophobia
The Congress’ side initially built up their case on protecting the American youth from dangerous activities performed on TikTok. However, the hearing quickly took a turn as the politicians repeatedly asked questions about TikTok’s Chinese counterpart and treated Chew like an idiot. Primarily, Representative Neal Dunn mostly focused on ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and questioned if Beijing had requested for TikTok to spy on Americans. Chew explained that they were never asked to and never spied on their American users. Congress was not impressed by Chew’s answers as Pallone said “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”
TikTok and Mr. Chew never had any real chance to defend themselves as the Congress already had an unchangeable attitude and behavior towards the issue. Even if Mr. Chew said that “we do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” the Congress was already prepared to not believe in any of his words which defeated the whole purpose of the hearing. Later, Mr. Chew tried to comfort the TikTok community by expressing that “it is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government.” Which I believe targeted the U.S. more than the manipulation that China is implementing according to the Congress.
The Congress is the Real Problem Here
Obviously, all social media promote certain behavior which is not always the greatest example for the youth. This issue is not only apparent in TikTok but on other platforms like Twitter and Instagram. As Chew said: “The potential security, privacy, content manipulation concerns raised about TikTok are really not unique to us, the same issues apply to other companies. We believe what’s needed are clear, transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies. Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns.”
The Congress was too hung up on political ideologies, missing the fact that TikTok is not available in China and that Mr. Chew is a Singaporean businessman who went to Harvard. When millions of Americans expressed that they were happy about how TikTok runs and were disturbed by the Congress’ ignorant hostility, how can people be confident that the U.S. Congress is truly doing what is in the best interest of Americans and not themselves.
Cover: Flickr/Alachua County
Edited by: Patricia Beschea