As lawmakers spent nearly five hours grilling TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew on Thursday, you could be forgiven for having a serious case of déjà vu.
Congressional hearings in which social-media executives take a beating have been happening for the past five years in Washington — just ask Meta Platforms Inc. META,
What U.S. leaders have not done in their years of spewing anger at social-media companies is actually pass legislation establishing standards for how those companies use Americans’ data. Basic data-privacy laws have been introduced, along with other attempts such as a long-delayed and much-needed revision to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, but Congress has failed to act.
More from Therese: Democrats promised to rein in Big Tech. They have failed.
It was a point bemoaned even by some of the members of the House, as they hammered away at Chew about TikTok’s ties to the Chinese government and the Communist Party, as they consider banning one of the world’s most popular social-media apps. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., while acknowledging that the genie was out of the bottle with TikTok for both its creative side and its dark side, said that more regulation of social-media companies is necessary.
“The solution, as I see it, is to regulate social media, TikTok and others…..The first key is privacy……it eluded us in the last congress,” Soto said, referring to the inability of Congress to pass the bipartisan “American Data and Privacy Protection Act” last year.
“For privacy, that’s on us,” he said.
Other congressional representatives also alluded to the failed effort last year to pass the privacy act. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, said she agreed that the U.S. needs a “comprehensive set of data-privacy laws,” adding that there are industrywide challenges but there are some issues specific to TikTok.
For more on the proposed bill: Long-awaited U.S. data-privacy bill attempts to catch up with states’, European efforts
In the absence of a federal data-privacy law, some states have been crafting their own measures, many modeled on the proposed federal bill. But TechNet, a trade association and lobbyist organization, has warned that the lack of a federal data-privacy law has led to a growing patchwork of privacy laws that are confusing to consumers and will have a “chilling effect” on the economy.
TechNet notes on its website that since 2018, 44 states have introduced 170 different, often conflicting, privacy laws and five states have enacted their own privacy laws.
Many in the tech community were echoing that sentiment on Twitter as the hearing was happening, such as this tweet by Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law Clinic: “Banning TikTok for privacy reasons is absurd when Meta can collect the same data and sell it to governments and foreign companies,” she tweeted. “Surveillance is apparently not an issue if it’s done for profit. The fundamental problem is that the U.S. has no meaningful data privacy laws.”
Earlier on Wednesday, China said that it strongly opposes any forced sale of TikTok, after the Biden administration demanded that its parent ByteDance either sell TikTok or it will be banned. It will soon be up to the U.S. government to somehow attempt to ban the app, and that really does appear to be on the table.
During the early part of the hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Cathy Morris Rodgers, R-Wash., told Chew that TikTok should be banned in the U.S. Multiple analysts suggested after the hearings that Chew’s performance would lead to a ban.
“We see a 3-6 month period ahead for ByteDance and TikTok to work out a sale to a U.S. tech player with a spinoff less likely and extremely complex to pull off,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives wrote. “If ByteDance fights against this forced sale, TikTok will likely be banned in the U.S. by late 2023.”
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Members of Congress were unusually united Thursday in their relentless grilling of Chew, with many of them seeming to have gained a better knowledge of technology since evincing abject cluelessness in previous hearings. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., even texted his two teenage sons to fact-check the TikTok CEO’s statements about a 60-minute limit on teenagers’ use of the app (he said he was met with scoffs, and the 15-year old said he is on TikTok as long as he wants).
If Congress can learn more about technology and unite in hatred of a social-media app, then they should be able to come together to pass a data-privacy bill this country has needed for a decade. It would be much more welcome than more acrimonious grandstanding directed at tech executives or a ban on an app that brings many Americans needed joy.