If you live on TikTok, there's a non-zero chance that you would have seen something about the TikTok hearing that went on in the U.S. Congress on Mar 23.
And you might have thought, "Why were the questions so...absurd?"
Well, you're not alone.
About WiFi networks (and data security)
One of the most viral bits that came out of the hearing was when North Carolina representative Richard Hudson asked TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi if TikTok accesses its users' home WiFi network.
After flashing a slightly befuddled look, Chew replied, "Only if the user turns on the WiFi...I'm sorry, I may not understand the (question)."
"So if I have (the) TikTok app on my phone, and my phone is on my home WiFi network, does TikTok access that network?" Hudson elaborated.
Another follow up question saw Hudson asking if TikTok can access other devices on a WiFi network that it is on.
'Mr. Chew, does TikTok access the home WiFi network?'— NowThis (@nowthisnews) March 24, 2023
We're... not entirely sure... if Rep. Richard Hudson knows how TikTok OR WiFi works...? pic.twitter.com/zs6OG66E5a
Absurd as they might seem, Hudson's questions give insight into the concerns that the Americans have.
Even though TikTok is based in Singapore and Los Angeles, it is wholly owned by Bytedance, a company based in Beijing.
And amid a strained and ever-deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China, this link between TikTok and Bytedance has set off alarm bells among American lawmakers.
They are worried that the Chinese government might get access to the data of 150 million active TikTok users in the U.S. -- and do more (like infiltrate the WiFi networks of Americans, maybe).
Is this paranoia? Perhaps. But it's not totally unfounded (the data access part, that is).
In December 2022, Bytedance revealed that four of its employees accessed data on journalists from Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while in the process of tracking down the source of a leaked report. The four employees were subsequently fired.
Furthermore, the U.S. has already banned communications equipment sold by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, citing the same reason: national security.
The White House has said that there are “legitimate national security concerns with respect to data integrity", even though China's Foreign Ministry has refuted that claim, saying that the U.S. “has not provided any evidence so far to prove that TikTok threatens U.S. national security".
Previously, the Biden administration had also indicated that it wanted Bytedance to sell TikTok so that it no longer comes under Chinese ownership. China is able to oppose this sale because any export of Chinese technology would have to be approved by the government.
Can the Chinese government make Bytedance hand over American users' data?
OK but so what if the Chinese government requests data from TikTok? Must TikTok hand it over?
That was the question that Representative Dan Crenshaw asked:
"If the CCP tells ByteDance to turn over all data that TikTok has collected inside the U.S., do they have to do so according to Chinese law?"
The relevant Chinese laws that are thrown about in the discussion are China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law which demand that organisations in China must comply with government demands for evidence, which can include data.
According to the Associated Press, since Bytedance is a Chinese company, "it would likely have to abide by these rules" if it is served with a demand by the Chinese government.
On its part, TikTok has promised a workaround: establishing a new subsidiary called the TikTok U.S. Data Security Inc. (USDS) in the United States which houses TikTok functions that relate to U.S. users' data and content moderation. It will be subjected to third-party audits.
TikTok calls it "Project Texas". Staff employed by the USDS must be either a U.S. citizen or a green card holder.
Unfortunately, as seen from the congressional hearing, U.S. lawmakers seem unconvinced that it will allay their concerns.
Are Bytedance employees card-carrying CCP members?
This question was posed by Crenshaw, who alleged that TikTok is "controlled by the Chinese Communist Party" and that Bytedance employees are "card-carrying members of the CCP".
In particular, Crenshaw referred to the presence of a CCP committee within the company which is "a regular thing in China".
This question might seem a bit odd (or maybe belonging to the fringes of paranoia), but there might be some basis for truth in it.
Crenshaw might have been referring to party organisations (also called party committees) in companies that operate in China. According to the U.S-China Business Council, Chinese law dictates that if a company has more than three CCP members, it has to form a party body within the company.
What is the role of a party body?
For private Chinese companies like Bytedance (as Chew asserted repeeatedly during the congressional hearing), the party body ensures that the company follows the law. It also oversees relevant groups like trade unions and the Communist Youth League.
According to Bloomberg, as of 2018, 73.1 per cent of private companies had established a party body. This ties in with what some TikTok users who had worked in China said: that this practice is prevalent across Chinese businesses -- even private ones -- because being a CCP member affords advantages in one's career progression in China.
A complex issue that, as you can see, does not fit easily into yes/no answers for a congressional hearing.
But as many observers have pointed out, it seems that the U.S. Congressmembers had made up their minds about TikTok even before the hearing, and as Reuters reported on Mar. 27, lawmakers will move ahead with the bill to ban TikTok.
China's Foreign Ministry reponded by urging the U.S. to "respect fair competition, and stop suppressing foreign companies".
Top images: TikTok