5 predictions for how TikTok CEO’s congressional testimony will play out
Policy, tech and advertising experts predict that the executive will defend the company’s efforts to make US user data more secure and will highlight the platform’s economic value.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will make his first congressional appearance this week / Adobe Stock
Policy experts are predicting that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will face tough questions this Thursday when the head of the popular video-sharing app will appear in his first testimony before Congress.
The 40-year-old executive is under growing pressure from lawmakers across the globe, who are concerned about the potential data privacy and security threats posed by TikTok as well as its effects on young people’s mental health.
Within the last three months, the US has banned TikTok from federal devices, Congress has advanced a bill that could clear the way for a wholesale ban on the app and US President Joe Biden has issued an ultimatum to the company to either sell to a US owner or face a ban. Across the Atlantic, the UK last week said it will also prohibit the app from being installed on government devices.
Meanwhile, concerns about the platform‘s impact on young people have prompted the company to roll out new screen time limits for children and teens.
Now, Chew will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Congress, where experts predict he will double down on the narrative that TikTok is working with US organizations to stem security and privacy concerns. Nonetheless, many suggest that the hearing is unlikely to inspire meaningful legislative change.
Here are their top predictions.
1. Chew will try to spotlight TikTok’s benefits
Some anticipate that the TikTok CEO will aim to quell policymakers’ concerns by emphasizing the value that TikTok brings to consumers and businesses.
“I expect he is going to invoke the millions of young Americans, campaigns and others that have woven TikTok into their online lives and activities to show lawmakers that banning TikTok is not an easy task,” says Cameron F. Kerry, a distinguished visiting fellow at Brookings Institution and a global leader in privacy, information technology and artificial intelligence.
Others agree that Chew is likely to try to draw attention to the benefits of TikTok’s US operations. “TikTok’s strategy will be to focus first on the growing number of users and how TikTok is a source of livelihood for many Americans,” predicts Shiv Gupta, managing partner at U of Digital, a digital marketing education firm.
It’s true that TikTok creators are making more money through the app. Through the TikTok Creator Fund, creators can earn as much as $40 for a post that garners 1m views. Add in paid brand partnerships and many influencers are making significant earnings thanks to the app. Restricting or banning the app, Chew may argue, will only hurt economic growth.
Focusing on TikTok‘s value to the US market is a tactic that Gupta believes could prove effective. “It’s smart for TikTok to deflect the conversation from security risks, which could devolve into a series of extreme, scary and technical-sounding hypotheticals that are unfavorable for TikTok,” he says. “It’s doubly smart to refocus the conversation on something that’s easy to understand, something that’s ‘feel-good’ and economic. America loves a good, blue-collar economic story [about something like] TikTok dance video income.”
2. Chew will double down on TikTok’s privacy and security initiatives
Others suggest that the executive will focus on assuring US lawmakers that TikTok is cooperating with the US’s demands.
Since 2019, the app, which is owned by Chinese parent ByteDance, has been negotiating with the US to address concerns about privacy, safety and security. A core part of this effort has centered on what TikTok internally dubbed ‘Project Texas’ – the company’s $1.5bn plan to combat mistrust of the platform.
Perhaps the most notable part of the effort has been the company‘s agreement last year to move all of its US user data to Oracle servers housed within the US.
“TikTok is in overdrive trying to convince DC lawmakers that it has addressed their national security concerns,” says Justin Sherman, chief exec of Global Cyber Strategies, a Washington, DC-based research and advisory firm. “The hearing will be yet another round of this saga, where TikTok’s CEO will try to address lawmakers’ concerns. TikTok’s approach has been to accept that policymakers have national security concerns, rather than argue about the concerns themselves, and instead focus on arguing that ‘Project Texas’ and its other measures over the last couple of years have sufficiently mitigated the risks in question.”
3. Politics will undoubtedly get involved
Despite the bipartisan nature of the issues at hand, Chew’s testimony Thursday will likely invite politics into the mix, experts say. “Congressional hearings are always political in one way or another,” says Sherman, “so there will be some members trying to get the CEO to make promises, under oath, about not being influenced by Beijing. Others will want their soundbites.”
It shouldn’t be overlooked that “all these government officials are trying to get re-elected by Americans,” adds U of Digital’s Gupta.
Despite these tactics, Sherman is skeptical that “any politicians or policymakers will come forward with what they claim is additional evidence of TikTok being actively subject to Chinese government influence.”
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4. The hearing won’t accelerate a TikTok ban
Experts agree that TikTok is unlikely to be banned in the US in the coming months, despite the media storm surrounding such a possibility.
For one, “such potential action raises concerns for user’s speech rights,” says Jennifer Huddleston, technology policy research fellow at Cato Institute, a DC-based thinktank backed by Charles Koch, which promotes limited government and free markets.
Beyond the issue of free speech, Sherman points out that there are laws in place that would make it nearly impossible to ban TikTok in the US. Most notably, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) prohibits the president from using his power to limit the export or import of ‘information or information materials.’ And “TikTok, as a social media company, is obviously engaged in information-sharing,” he says.
These and other hurdles have most experts convinced that TikTok won’t be banned in the US anytime soon. “Nothing happened last time and nothing will happen this time,” says Gupta. “Of course, there’s a chance, but I doubt it. If the government does get serious about a ban, TikTok would move quickly to take measures that address security concerns – like selling the company to an American entity – in order to prevent a ban and the US would likely give them a grace period for this.”
Nonetheless, a handful of bills have been introduced in Congress that seek to give the executive branch new power to ban specific apps, which, if they gain traction, could ultimately result in action that overrides the IEEPA’s restrictions. In this case, the Biden administration would have the runway to cut off TikTok in the US.
It’s certainly a concern for Chew and his organization. As Sherman puts it: “TikTok is clearly worried about legislation to restrict non-US tech firms and the reports of the Biden administration looking to ask ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US owner.”
5. Marketers and advertisers will still be on edge
Despite skepticism that a ban is imminent, experts say that marketers will still be wary of what‘s to come – because they have a lot at stake. In 2022, the platform accounted for 2.4% of all digital ad spend in the US – putting it on par with YouTube and bypassing Twitter.
“If TikTok somehow were to get banned, there would be massive, widespread implications, particularly on the ad industry,” Gupta says. He suggests that competitors such as Snap and Meta “would get a meaningful revenue bump.” Plus, “performance metrics may nosedive, at which point advertisers may pull some spend altogether from the market.” Ultimately, he says, the outlook for advertisers would be grim.
Though competing platforms might swoop in and gobble up some of the lost ad spend in the absence of TikTok, many advertisers have specific use cases for TikTok that would not translate seamlessly across the board, says Cato Institute’s Huddleston. “Many users, including advertisers, connect with an audience differently on TikTok than on other social media platforms, and the platform is notable for its popularity with gen Z,” she says. “The potential impact of a TikTok ban or restrictions extend beyond the app itself to the creators and advertisers that have benefited from using it.”
Ultimately, policymakers should examine all social media platforms‘ data and security practices with scrutiny, argues Daniel Barber, the chief exec and co-founder of DataGrail, a privacy management platform. “In terms of winners and losers, competitors like Instagram and YouTube may benefit if TikTok is turned off in the US – but their practices represent different dangers,” he says.
“We’re not going to eliminate social media, so the bigger questions are how do we protect the privacy rights of all users – which is something that has stumped everyone so far, given that we don’t have federal data privacy protections in place – and how do we protect national security interests at the same time?”
Until these questions are answered effectively, he says, “everyone loses.”
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