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TikTok is the fastest growing app on the planet with more than 150 million monthly users in the U.S. alone. But that popularity does not extend to Capitol Hill where its defenders are in the minority. Laura Barrón-López looks into the potential personal, political and international fallout should the government outlaw the platform.
Good evening, and welcome to the "NewsHour."
The CEO of the fastest-growing app on the planet went head to head with members of Congress today.
TikTok has more than 150 million monthly users in the U.S. alone, but faces growing calls for it to be banned over fears about China's access to user data.
Laura Barrón-López looks into the potential personal, political and international fallout should the U.S. government ban the platform.
What started with one viral video is now a full-time career for 27-year-old Alex D'Alessio.
Alex D’Alessio, TikTok Creator:
I will just put it in my little ring mount and hit record.
Two years ago, he was an engineer working a 9:00-to-5:00 and new homeowner of a Baltimore townhouse.
I just use double sided sticky tape to tile my entire bar, and here's how it turned out.
He began posting his do-it-yourself renovation projects to the social media app, TikTok.
It wasn't that big of a deal. I just had to kind of do it.
Building a home and also an audience.
I mean, come on. The grout just perfectly matches the countertops, and I'm just loving the entire vibe.
One, like, Tuesday morning before work, I was like, let me just upload this video. And then I came home from work, and I was like, whoa, there's like 200,000 views. Like, I had all these comments. And from there, it just kind of started.
Now with more than 300,000 TikTok followers, D'Alessio runs Real Life Renovations, a brand and a business where he documents his projects' successes and mistakes, partnering with companies like Home Depot and Benjamin Moore.
The brands started reaching out. And that's when the light bulb really clicked. And I was like, maybe this could be something bigger than it is and eventually be full-time.
So this isn't just a hobby for you; this is your business?
A hundred percent.
But he's worried that the new job he's created, which has also allowed him to hire his mother-in-law part-time, could go away.
It just seems like you have no control, and the government is deciding for you, which is really scary. I'm trying to, like, put on a good face. But, like, that's my business.
And it's detrimental.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA):
Your platform should be banned.
And it's all at risk in Washington.
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA):
Mr. Crew, welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress. We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security.
Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA):
Are you a Chinese company?
Where Democrats and Republicans share a common enemy in TikTok and its CEO, Shou Chew, appearing before Congress today for the first time.
Shou Zi Chew, CEO, TikTok:
ByteDance is not own are controlled by the Chinese government.
Defensive amid a fierce and bipartisan interrogation of the company's safety, privacy and security practices, Chew was adamant that the Chinese Communist Party cannot access U.S. data through TikTok, as members repeatedly alleged.
Rep. Bill Johnson(R-OH):
Mr. Chew, this is yet another instance of TikTok attempting to mislead Americans about what their technology is capable of and who has access to their information.
Chew pushed back, emphasizing TikTok's Project Texas plan, which puts the American company Oracle in control of U.S. data and content.
Shou Zi Chew:
American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.
There's no public evidence that China has used the platform to spy on Americans.
But lawmakers weren't convinced.
Congresswoman, I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data. They have never asked us. We have not provided it. I have asked that question.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA):
Well, you know what? I find that actually preposterous.
Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: Very American company. Buy it.
It's been a long-brewing fight across two administrations. In recent weeks, the White House repeatedly upped pressure on TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, to sell the app to an American-owned company.
And President Biden expressed support for a bipartisan bill that would strengthen his authority to ban the app.
As lawmakers grilled TikTok's CEO, dozens of creators who have more than 60 million followers combined descended on Capitol Hill this week to defend the platform.
Jason Linton, TikTok Creator:
So I'm asking politicians, don't take away the community that we have all built.
One by one, they argued the platform is more than an app for silly viral videos, that it's empowered small businesses, promoted creativity, lifted up marginalized voices, and become a mainstay of American life.
The average user spends 56 minutes a day on TikTok, more than YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook, according to the data researcher Insider Intelligence.
It almost feels like, if you can't beat them, cancel them. I just wish they would try to exhaust all other options prior to potentially canceling it.
Here's just how easy it is to change the outdated light fixture in your home.
For creators across the country like Alex D'Alessio, recreating what they have built on TikTok on another platform isn't easy, and comes with no guarantees that the new business will survive.
What a lot of people don't realize on the creator side is, Instagram allows you to post a minute-and-a-half reels. That's the max. TikTok allows you to post 10-minute videos.
It's much harder to connect with audience on a shorter video than it is to kind of build your rapport and build your community over a four-minute video.
So I will just kind of back that up.
At least half of Alex's income comes from his work on the app. And he and his wife, a second-grade teacher, rely on that money.
From one day to the next, if it's gone, you said your income would be cut in half. Then how quickly do you think you could even make up that money switching over to another app?
Not quickly. It's not something that I can easily change. I can't just grow an Instagram following bigger, a YouTube following bigger.
D'Alessio doesn't usually follow politics, but said he'd watched the hearing today, hopeful lawmakers would listen to his generation. In the meantime, he will continue renovating project by project.
But his new career may be built on a foundation that's about to give away.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barrón-López.
For more on the legal and national security concerns regarding TikTok, we're joined by Ryan Calo. He's a professor of law and information science at the University of Washington. And he's closely following all of this.
Thanks for being with us.
Ryan Calo, University of Washington: Thanks for having me.
TikTok has never been more popular or problematic. And as was evident in today's hearing, the U.S. believes that TikTok might be pressured by the Chinese government into sharing user data.
You, as I understand it, believe this prolonged debate, this three-year-long debate in Washington, about TikTok has more to do with politics and less to do with privacy. Tell me more about that.
Well, TikTok, like other tech companies, collects a lot of data about users, maybe more than most users understand. And, in that way, it does present a danger to privacy.
But there isn't any good evidence that that danger is unique to TikTok, as opposed to other companies like YouTube, Google or Meta. What's distinctive, of course, is that TikTok has a Chinese parent company. And it seems like a lot of politicians are seizing upon that fact to speculate about TikTok presenting a national security threat.
TikTok's CEO told lawmakers today of this company's plan to store American user data on U.S. soil.
In your view, was that assurance satisfactory? Because there's lots of skepticism that TikTok can ever be beyond the reach of the Chinese government, so long as it is owned by ByteDance, which is a Chinese company, which is subject to Chinese national law.
Well, it seems like the options on the table are rather severe.
One involves forcing a company to sell. And the other is a complete ban on a service that millions of Americans use. And so the third option that TikTok is presenting, which they have nicknamed Project Texas, would keep American data on American soil. And information would only flow to the parent company under very specific conditions, and actually have to be vetted by people within the U.S. government.
The whole arrangement is enforced technically by an American company called Oracle. So it does seem like a pretty robust measure in place. Now, I understand it's no complete guarantee that China will never be able to access Americans' data, but it does seem to be a compromise position, as opposed to a ban or forced sale.
Well, as you mentioned, the Biden administration says it wants TikTok sold or banned. There are political ramifications having to do with that. But, legally, how would the U.S. government go about banning a communication platform without running afoul of the First Amendment?
That's a great questions.
Here, it looks as though Biden might have Congress behind him. Congress could pass a law, like the one that they're thinking about, the RESTRICT Act, which would confer upon, if not the president, then the secretary of commerce the ability to vet applications and services for national security concerns, and then cause a forced sale or a ban.
Now, if that were to happen, I think the courts would react skeptically, first of all, because it's such a serious incursion on the private world for the government to force one company to sell to another or to ban it entirely, and, second, because it does raise free speech concerns that you just mentioned.
TikTok is the second most popular app among U.S. teens, second only to YouTube. As we mentioned, it boasts some 150 million users in the U.S.
And that speaks to, I think, another source of tension and unease, that, at some point in the future, the Internet might not be controlled by the U.S. and might not be subject to U.S. values and norms about freedom and security, that China could take the lead.
I have to say that I am more concerned about TikTok's recommendation algorithms than I am about its collection and use of data, especially as compared to other companies.
And that's precisely for the reason you just said right. I mean, the concern I would have is that the algorithms that TikTok uses would surface content that was in favor of the Chinese world view, and dampen criticism. And that's very concerning.
So whatever protections are put into place, I would hope that they would have a separate algorithm that is used in the United States that is not beholden to a Chinese agenda.
In your view, do average Americans, just regular TikTok users, do they have reason to be concerned that the Chinese government might leverage their mobile data or their personal information?
I don't think so.
And let me — let me say a little bit about why. So, first of all, the Chinese intelligence sector has perhaps the most advanced or the second most advanced spying capabilities in the world. And so, if the Chinese government wanted to get a hold of an individual's data, they wouldn't have to rely upon TikTok.
The way that TikTok could be useful would be to get an aggregate sense of American mood or understanding what Americans' patterns are trying to understand us as a people, or the young users.
But the Chinese government could just as easily — there are data brokers who are happy to share information about Americans with whoever pays them, including China. So, I just don't know that TikTok is the most efficient, plausible way for the Chinese government to spy on Americans.
That said, as I mentioned at the outset, young users or whomever who is using TikTok should be aware that their privacy is not adequately protected. And what we really need is comprehensive privacy laws in the United States to protect all Americans from all the tech companies that would want to leverage their data.
Ryan Calo is a professor of law and information science at the University of Washington.
Thanks so much for your perspectives and insight.
Thanks again for having me.
Watch the Full Episode
Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
Laura Barrón-López is the White House Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, where she covers the Biden administration for the nightly news broadcast. She is also a CNN political analyst.
Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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