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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

What the TikTok CEO will face when he testifies to Congress

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: The United States cracks down on Huawei and Europe mulls making tech companies pay for internet upgrades. First:

What the TikTok CEO will face when he testifies to Congress

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is slated to testify before Congress for the first time in March, a long sought after session announced Monday that comes as the company faces mounting pressure over its links to China. 

The CEO is poised to face a barrage of questions over the companies’ efforts to safeguard user data and protect kids online, in addition to the potential risks posed by its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. 

While TikTok officials have previously testified, the session marks the company’s first appearance since it began to more openly discuss its negotiations to settle security concerns with the U.S. government. The hearing will also represent the biggest test of whether TikTok has offered up enough concessions to assuage its critics, including greater privacy safeguards.

Here are the main questions the mogul is likely to field: 

Does TikTok’s proposed firewall with China go far enough?

The last time a TikTok executive testified to Congress in September, lawmakers dug deep into the company's corporate structure to try to identify vulnerabilities that could leave U.S. user data accessible to Chinese government officials. 

That included a series of tense exchanges over whether TikTok could be compelled by China to turn over U.S. data under local laws, something its chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, said they would never do. The trend will likely continue at the next session, which will be hosted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal

In announcing the hearing, Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) accused TikTok of having “knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data.” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter pushed back on the remarks, saying in a statement that there is “no truth to Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ claim that TikTok has made U.S. user data available to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Oberwetter added that under the company’s proposed arrangement with the Biden administration to settle national security concerns, “that kind of data sharing — or any other form of foreign influence over the TikTok platform in the United States — would not be possible.”

Is TikTok contributing to harms and mental health issues for kids?

While the committee’s China concerns will be front and center, the panel is also set to drill down on whether the company is taking adequate steps to keep children safe online, a topic its head of U.S. public policy, Michael Beckerman, testified about in 2021

The panel’s Republican leaders have focused on the issue for months, pressing TikTok over reports of child sexual exploitation material on its site and demanding the company fork over more data about its impact on kids’ mental health. At the 2021 session, TikTok touted its efforts to share data with outside researchers, but lawmakers are now likely to press for more.

“Americans deserve to know … what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement Monday.

The panel, which has primary jurisdiction over data privacy issues, is also likely to dig into claims that TikTok has failed to protect children’s privacy, an issue the company was fined for in the United States and that is generating global scrutiny from other regulators.

“I have serious concerns for consumer safety and data privacy on TikTok, especially for our children and teenagers who make up the majority of users,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in an emailed statement.

Could Chinese government officials ever influence TikTok’s feed?

U.S. officials are increasingly voicing concern about the prospect of China influencing TikTok’s algorithmic curation and trying to shape public discourse through it. 

At a December hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was concerned that the company’s corporate structure through ByteDance could allow the Chinese government “to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations.”

The top two lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee echoed those concerns during an interview that aired this weekend, as we covered Monday, with Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) saying the threat is “exponentially greater” than what Russian meddling posed in 2016. 

TikTok’s Oberwetter said, “The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok.”

Our top tabs

Biden administration moves to ban U.S. companies from exporting to Huawei

The Commerce Department has started to notify tech companies that it will no longer provide licenses to trade with Huawei, a Chinese equipment manufacturing company, according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations, the Financial Times’s Demetri Sevastopulo reports.

“The move comes as Washington steps up efforts to work with allies to slow China’s push to develop cutting-edge technology such as semiconductors that are used in artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons,” Sevastopulo writes, adding that some national security officials think that Huawei “helps China engage in espionage.”

The Trump administration previously imposed limits on exports to Huawei, but products related to high-speed 5G telecom networks were not included in that ban. In October, the Biden administration restricted American companies from selling semiconductor manufacturing tools abroad. And last week, the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands agreed to block companies from exporting certain chip-making hardware to China.

E.U. mulls requiring tech companies to pay for telecom upgrades

The European Union is considering a proposal that would make technology companies that use the most data, like Google and Netflix, to help pay for upgrades to internet infrastructure, Bloomberg News’s Jillian Deutsch reports

“The suggestions are part of a ‘fair-share’ vision from the EU’s executive arm that could require large tech businesses, which provide streaming videos and other data-heavy services, to help pay for the traffic they generate,” according to the report. “The commission also asked companies whether there should be a threshold that would qualify a company to be a “large traffic generator,” according to a draft of the plan.

The proposal mirrors one floated by Brendan Carr, a Republican at the Federal Communications Commission, requiring large tech companies to help pay to fund efforts to close the so-called digital divide. “Big Tech has been enjoying a free ride on our internet infrastructure while skipping out on the billions of dollars in costs needed to maintain and build that network,” Carr wrote in a 2021 op-ed.

Twitter moving ahead with push for payments service

Twitter has begun applying for regulatory approval in the United States and has kicked off designing the software needed to unveil a payments service on the platform, the Financial Times’s Hannah Murphy reports

“The nascent moves to allow payments through the site are a critical part of [Twitter owner Elon] Musk’s plan to open up fresh revenue streams,” according to the report. “Twitter’s $5bn-a-year advertising business has cratered since he bought the platform for $44bn in October, with marketers citing concerns over its management and content moderation.”

Musk has discussed launching fintech services such as peer-to-peer transactions as part of his plan to launch a so-called “everything app” that would offer a broad array of services on Twitter. 

Agency scanner

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‘Recession Resilient’ Climate Start-Ups Shine in Tech Downturn (New York Times)

Competition watch

Facebook seeks to block $3.7 billion UK mass action over market dominance (Reuters)


Your iPhone has powerful new security features. Do you need them? (Heather Kelly)

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