TikTok lost a battle in Washington and its ban in the United States seems inevitable, although the government will have to show tact before taking the hugely popular platform away from 150 million Americans.
Shou Zi Chew, the chief executive of TikTok, a short-video app subsidiary of Chinese company ByteDance, faced a barrage of attacks from a powerful US congressional committee on Thursday without really getting a chance to respond.
Lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, accuse TikTok of being a tool for Beijing to spy on and manipulate Americans.
The hearing in the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives ended in “disaster” for TikTok, said Dan Yves of Webdush Securities, who expects an increase of “calls from lawmakers and the White House to ban TikTok in the US if it is not spun off from ByteDance.”
“TikTok will probably be banned by the end of the year” in the United States unless ByteDance finds a US buyer in “three to six months”, he estimated.
Karine Jean-Pierre, a White House spokeswoman, spoke Thursday night of the “ongoing negotiations with ByteDance” and specified that the government of Joe Biden “strongly supports” the RESTRICT Act, one of the bills that aim to ban TikTok.
The bill, debated by senators this month, gives the Commerce Department new powers to ban technologies that threaten national security.
On Friday morning, the conservative New York Post put the issue on the front page, headlining “The balance of TikTok” with the photo of the parents of a dead teenager, present at the hearing on Thursday.
These parents recently sued TikTok, accusing it of sending their son unsolicited suicide videos.
“Your company destroyed their livessaid Congressman Gus Bilirakis, pointing to the family.
Confidentiality of user data, content moderation led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), misinformation, addictions, dangerous challenges, risks to mental and physical health of children and adolescents: the list of complaints from lawmakers about TikTok is long.
The platform tried to anticipate it with a campaign, before the hearing, highlighting its popularity in the United States, a “miscalculation” that “reinforced the argument” of congressmen, according to Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg.
The 150 million TikTok users in the United States “they are Americans about whom the CCP can collect sensitive information to ultimately control what they see, hear, and believe”said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the committee.
TikTok has also called on influencers to defend the service that made them famous.
But “Highlighting TikTok’s economic impact is also a tricky strategy, given that its growth has come in part at the expense of US companies like Meta. Instagram and YouTube would be the first beneficiaries” of a ban in the United States.
The United States has already tried to Americanize or ban TikTok: former President Donald Trump (2017-2021), exasperated in particular by user content ridiculing him, sought to do so in the name of national security, to no avail.
The current strong tensions with China this time unite Republicans and Democrats. But freedom NGOs, some lawmakers and many experts argue that TikTok poses essentially the same problems as Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
“From a security standpoint, we could certainly find a solution that minimizes the perceived risks.Michael Daniel, director of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a cybersecurity NGO, told AFP.
“But would that be satisfactory for politicians? that’s another question”, he added.
A ban would mean that “The United States, a democracy, is taking measures that restrict the ability of young voters (TikTok users) to express themselves and earn a living.said Sarah Kreps, a law professor and director of the Tech Policy Institute at Cornell University.
“Given the costs of such a decision and its limited benefits, lawmakers must first consider effective data protection laws and risk control strategies, such as ‘Project Texas’”, TikTok’s proposed compromise to protect US data.
“We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive platformVanessa Pappas, TikTok’s chief operating officer, tweeted Thursday. “It’s a shame that today’s conversation seems to emanate from xenophobia”.
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