TikTok to Defend Against Claims It's 'Digital Fentanyl'

CEO Shou Zi Chew to respond to security, content concerns at Thursday hearing
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 23, 2023 8:39 AM CDT
TikTok to Defend Against Claims It's 'Digital Fentanyl'
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., joined by the popular app's supporters, leads a rally to defend TikTok at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.   (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The fate of TikTok in the US could rest on a Congressional hearing taking place Thursday, which will see CEO Shou Zi Chew claim the data of its 150 million US users is protected from the Chinese government. Lawmakers aren't convinced. As the New York Times reports, the app has become "a battleground in a technological Cold War" between the US and China as they fight for tech leadership, "with US threats of a TikTok ban recalling how China has long blocked many American platforms." What to expect:

  • A nationwide ban is possible: The app is already banned by more than two dozen states, but the Biden administration is threatening a country-wide ban unless Chinese owner ByteDance sells the app, which US intelligence officials fear could be used by the Chinese government for influence operations.
  • No way, says China: The country's Commerce Ministry said Thursday that a sale of TikTok would involve exporting technology and would therefore need approval by the Chinese government, which won't give it, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • TikTok backs oversight: TikTok instead proposes a $1.5 billion company restructuring project that will see it remain under ByteDance's ownership but with federal oversight and vetting by US tech firm Oracle, which would also store US user data, per the Guardian and NPR.

  • What the CEO will say: It will be "American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel," Chew will tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee, beginning at 10am, per NPR. He'll also claim TikTok "has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government."
  • Chinese security law of interest: China's 2017 National Intelligence Law states that all organizations and citizens shall "support, assist, and cooperate" with national intelligence efforts, per the Guardian. But that "won't matter ... because we're taking US user data and we're putting it out of their reach," Chew previously told the Journal.
  • Spying has occurred: As the Washington Post reports, whistleblowers have warned US data could still be exposed to China-based employees of ByteDance, who've been found to have improperly accessed sensitive data, including IP addresses, of journalists reporting on company leaks.
  • There are content issues, too: The committee chair, Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has claimed tech companies like TikTok use "harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online," per the Guardian.

  • What kids are seeing: Some research suggests TikTok’s recommendation algorithm pushes self-harm and eating disorder content to at-risk teens. There are also concerns about addictive content—Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher has called TikTok "digital fentanyl," per NPR—though TikTok sought to address this.
  • Chew rallies the troops: In a video shared Tuesday, Chew warned TikTok could disappear and urged users to share what they love about the app. The company has also held press conferences in Washington with dozens of creators on the app, which has become a "culture-making machine," per the Times.
  • A defender in Congress: Rep. Jamaal Bowman, with 159,000 followers on TikTok, tells the Times that the platform has become a "scapegoat" amid "xenophobic anti-China rhetoric." He argues there's no meaningful evidence that Chinese authorities are manipulating the platform. And though there's clear evidence that Russia used Facebook to interfere in the 2016 election, "we didn't talk about a ban on Facebook."
  • Is a ban even possible? That's a question still being debated, though two federal judges previously blocked former President Trump's effort to ban TikTok, "citing free speech violations and executive overreach," per NPR.
(More TikTok stories.)

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