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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

TikTok’s charm offensive gets a chilly reception in Congress

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: The Justice Department ramps up scrutiny of Apple, and the United States tries to get countries on the same page on military AI. First:

TikTok’s charm offensive gets a chilly reception in Congress

The early reviews on TikTok’s new charm offensive in Washington are in — and they’re bleak.

In recent weeks, the social media company has dialed up its engagement with lawmakers, think tanks and members of the press as it pushes back on claims that it poses a threat to national security due to its links to China.

The effort has included private meetings between the company’s chief executive and prominent skeptics in Congress.

“We understand we start from a place of trust deficit, and that trust is not won by one move, one silver bullet, one meeting,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told my colleague Drew Harwell on Tuesday in an exclusive new interview

Chew’s campaign comes as negotiations between TikTok and the Biden administration over a potential deal to address those concerns drag on, even as political scrutiny about its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance is soaring nationwide. 

This week, Chew met with at least two lawmakers in Washington, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who have voiced concern about Americans’ exposure to the popular video-sharing platform. Neither walked away swayed.

Bennet, who recently called on Apple and Google to boot TikTok from its app stores due to its alleged security risk, issued a statement Tuesday saying that even after the session, he remains “fundamentally concerned” that TikTok “poses an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.”

TikTok said it “respectfully disagrees” with Bennet’s characterization of the company and “will continue to work on educating members of Congress and building trust.”

Bennet told me Wednesday that during their meeting, TikTok outlined the deal it has offered the U.S. government to address its concerns, which officials have said includes greater protections and oversight around data security. But Bennet said he didn’t find it sufficient. “None of the suggested … efforts were particularly relevant to my concerns,” he said.

Wicker, the former Senate Commerce Committee chair, said he met with the TikTok chief  “as a courtesy,” but the conversation didn’t assuage his fears. Wicker spokesman Phillip Waller said later that the senator’s “views on TikTok and its threat to American interests remain completely unchanged.”

Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s U.S. public policy chief and the former CEO of the now-defunct Internet Association trade group, was also spotted in the Senate on Tuesday.

Asked about TikTok’s outreach to federal policymakers, several lawmakers suggested there’s little chance the company can convince them that their fears are unfounded.

“I don’t think there’s anything they can say. It’s all about what they do, and what they do is pretty alarming,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who sits on the Commerce Committee and has been a key negotiator in discussions around data privacy legislation on Capitol Hill. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of TikTok’s most outspoken and long-standing critics, said the company’s engagement shows it’s “scared” of looming regulation. Hawley last year spearheaded a successful campaign to prohibit federal employees from downloading the app on government devices, and has proposed legislation to ban it for consumers nationwide. 

“After stonewalling for years and lying to us repeatedly, now they’re afraid because we banned them on all federal devices … so now they are very afraid that we’re going to do the same thing nationwide,” said Hawley, adding that he had no plans to meet with Chew.

In 2019, Hawley demanded TikTok executives testify before a congressional panel he chaired. After they declined, his staff left an open seat for the company at the witness table.

In his interview with Drew, the TikTok chief said that in addressing scrutiny, he’s had to navigate discussions with people who have never used TikTok and who have argued in tweets and TV news interviews they believe TikTok’s arguments are compromised, foolish or naive.

Many of the suspicions he’s tried to address, Chew said, have been “misinformed” or based on “misrepresentations.” 

Chew is now set to testify before the House next month — in what will be only the third time the company will appear before Congress and the first by its chief executive. 

“I just say to my colleagues, ‘these guys are wolves in wolves’ clothing, so be careful,’” Hawley said.

Our top tabs

Justice Department ramps up Apple antitrust probe

The Justice Department is escalating efforts to draft a potential antitrust complaint against Apple, the Wall Street Journal’s Aaron Tilley, Dave Michaels and Keach Hagey report

“The investigation into whether Apple has monopoly power that it abuses began in 2019, but enforcers have escalated their efforts in recent months, with more litigators now assigned to the case and new requests for documents and consultations with companies involved,” according to the report. Apple declined to comment to the Journal. 

The investigation is said to focus in part on Apple’s handling of third-party mobile software, which has been the subject of intense global regulatory scrutiny. Apple declined to comment to the Journal, but has previously said it does not operate its business in a way that hurts developers. 

U.S. looking to get countries on the same page about military AI

The U.S. government announced a new effort to establish a set of international norms on how militaries use artificial intelligence tools and weapons, unveiling a new declaration Thursday at a summit on using AI for military purposes hosted by the Dutch government, my colleague Gerrit De Vynck reports for The Technology 202.

The principles include ensuring senior military leaders are aware of how AI tools are being developed and deployed, rigorously testing AI tools and weapons before using them, and being transparent about the steps that go into making sure new weapons conform with international law.

Arms-control advocates have argued for years that countries should ban autonomous weapons completely, but the United States and other major world powers have charged ahead with developing the tech. Weapons that can make their own decisions have already been deployed in the Ukraine-Russia war and the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The United States aims to have other countries sign onto the new declaration, with the hope that establishing norms that align with the United States will make the development of AI weapons more transparent, said a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We want to begin the process of articulating norms of conduct that reflect our approach,” the official said.

House Republicans subpoena tech giants, escalating censorship probes

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) announced Wednesday he sent subpoenas to the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta and Alphabet seeking information on “the federal government’s reported collusion with Big Tech to suppress free speech,” my colleague Rachel Lerman reports. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The move escalates the House GOP’s investigation into claims of censorship by major tech companies. As Rachel reports, “Twitter was absent from Jordan’s subpoenas Wednesday. The social media company is now run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has signaled that he is sympathetic to the conservative concern and has said he is concerned about online “free speech suppression.”

Republicans initially demanded information from the companies last year while in the minority, but having taken control of the House, they are now using their powers to try to force them to cough up more information.

Inside the industry

Judge denies FTX an independent examiner citing time and expense (Axios)

Twitter is relaxing its policies to allow cannabis ads (The Verge)

Microsoft’s Bing Chatbot Offers Some Puzzling and Inaccurate Responses (New York Times)

Competition watch

EU set to investigate Amazon’s $1.7bn purchase of Roomba-maker (The Financial Times)


Yes, Elon Musk created a special system for showing you all his tweets first (Platformer)

The clever trick that turns ChatGPT into its evil twin (Will Oremus)


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