What TikTok’s grilling in Congress means for the future of the app

“YOUR PLATFORM should be banned.” The statement from Cathy Rodgers, a Republican congresswoman, kicked off a five-hour evisceration of TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, by American lawmakers. Both Democratic and Republican members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce grilled Mr Chew about the potential threats of the hugely popular short-video app to America’s national security. It was a rare display of political unity by the committee’s members, the result of new bipartisan hawkishness towards China. TikTok, though based in Singapore and Los Angeles, is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing. As young people have flocked to the app—Mr Chew has bragged that more than 150m Americans are now users—lawmakers have grown more concerned about the data that the Chinese-owned company may be collecting, and the potential for the app to be used to spread propaganda on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The committee used Mr Chew as a punching bag for all manner of concerns over big tech. Lawmakers swung from the CCP to mental health, privacy, fentanyl, migration, advertising, misinformation and much else besides. Though many of these problems also apply to other social-media platforms, TikTok’s popularity among teenagers makes concerns over user safety more acute and emotional.

But national-security concerns dominated. Mr Chew’s goal in appearing on Capitol Hill was to convince the committee, the American government and, since the hearing was live-streamed, the American public that TikTok is eager to respond to these concerns. The company’s answer to American fears of Chinese meddling is Project Texas, a plan years in the making that aims to wall off American data from TikTok’s parent company in China. According to Mr Chew, all American data would by the end of this year be stored within the United States (though it is not currently) on servers operated by Oracle, an American firm. The app’s source code and algorithm would also be regularly inspected by third parties. TikTok says it is spending $1.5bn on the plan.

The committee wasn’t buying it. Several lawmakers suggested that Project Texas could not placate their worries that China would still have access to American data. Many called for the app to be banned. That is looking increasingly likely.

If Project Texas does not go far enough, America has two options. The Biden administration could attempt to follow through on its threat to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to another firm. China’s government is opposed to this. Hours before Mr Chew’s grilling in Washington, the country’s commerce ministry said that TikTok’s forced sale would require China’s approval, because it would involve the export of precious technology. That approval would almost certainly not be forthcoming. There may also be legal hurdles in America. President Donald Trump tried to force ByteDance to sell TikTok’s American business to a domestic firm in 2020, but the order was struck down by the courts and then rescinded when Mr Biden took office.

The second option is a ban on TikTok’s use in the United States. Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress support such a move. Many limited bans are already in place. Congress banned the app on government devices in December and the White House recently did the same for agencies in the executive branch. But states are leading the charge. At least 29 have banned TikTok on government devices or networks. Several public universities have barred students from accessing TikTok on campus Wi-Fi. Montana’s state legislature is considering a bill that would ban the app statewide. The Senate is mulling one that would grant the Commerce Department the power to prohibit communications or technology transactions between America and its “foreign adversaries”. The Biden administration has expressed support for the bill, which does not specifically target TikTok, but was designed with it in mind.

It is not clear how a wider TikTok ban would be enforced, should America go down that path. What does seem clear is that it would irk businesses worried about losing exposure to TikTok’s young audience—not to mention vex millions of devoted users. New polling from The Economist and YouGov shows that younger Americans are much less hostile to China than their parents are. Wonky explanations of national-security risk may not console them if their favourite app is taken away.