Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to address long-standing concerns about the social media company’s ties to China and the potential risks to national security. What followed can only be described as farcical. Clips of politician’s fumbling questions have been circulating on TikTok for weeks, making it clear that US politicians barely understand the Internet or the platforms that they are trying to regulate.
Rep. Richard Hudson asked whether or not TikTok accesses home wifi networks. Rep. August Pfluger instructed Shou Zi Chew to rename the company’s internal security project nicknamed Project Texas because it was “not appropriate”. One representative accused TikTok of election interference, another accused the company of peddling communism to American youth. A more bizarre theory posited that TikTok studied pupil dilation in order to present more likable content to users.
It’s no laughing matter. During the five-hour testimony, very important questions were asked about political interference, the Uyghur genocide, and data privacy. Most of these questions were deflected.
Once thing is very clear: governments are not yet able to police social media effectively. The US government may be concerned about the app’s data collection policies, but haven’t made any clear steps to understand what they are or to curb them in any way. It’s also fair to say that a group of people who don’t seem to understand the mechanics of social media aren’t the ones that should introduce the mechanisms to protect users.
Technology has outpaced legislation for the last thirty years or so; perhaps setting dangerous precedents for future generations. Facebook has grappled with the dilemma of creating a safer online community for years. How do you create safety and content standards, for example, to police a phenomenon that has never existed before? Can any business effectively police or monitor the activities of 2.9 billion users? If so, what would it look like? Should a company infringe on the privacy of their users in order to protect them? Where do you draw the line between delivering a commercial experience that your users want and collecting the data you need to deliver the best possible experience?
The TikTok trial highlights the fact that governments need to work together to develop a coordinated approach to regulating the internet, by setting international standards for data protection and privacy, as well as the establishment of new regulatory bodies to oversee internet companies. The EU adopted this approach to regulate digital identities and cryptocurrency companies, effectively working together to reduce money laundering and terrorist financing across their borders.
Whether we’ll see the same due diligence applied to social media isn’t clear. While it’s good that questions are finally being asked, it’s just too bad that they are dumb ones.
Estelle Nagel, Podium PR & Copywriting