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Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan on TikTok hearing

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

On Thursday, the CEO of TikTok testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was grilled by representatives from both parties.

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GUS BILIRAKIS: Your technology is literally leading to death.

FRANK PALLONE JR: You know, you say you're benign. You want to do good things for the public. So let me ask you, what about a commitment that says that you won't sell the data that you collect?

GARY PALMER: Yes or no - do you screen against content from nations that commit crimes against humanity?

DETROW: That was Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Florida, Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Republican Gary Palmer of Alabama. In recent months, opposition to TikTok has gained momentum in the United States, with more and more lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, raising concerns that TikTok's parent company, Bytedance, might be sharing data from U.S. users with the Chinese government. Many are calling for a ban on the massively popular app that boasts 150 million U.S. users. Despite the growing opposition to the app in Congress, a relatively small group of Democratic representatives have spoken out against a proposed ban on the app.

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JAMAAL BOWMAN: This is more governing through fearmongering without actual evidence.

DETROW: That's Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Democrat from New York. Making the case alongside Bowman is a fellow progressive, Mark Pocan, Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, who joins me now. Good afternoon.

MARK POCAN: Glad to be here.

DETROW: At this point, there's a pretty broad bipartisan consensus on this issue. I guess my question to you is, why are so many of your colleagues wrong?

POCAN: Well, this is kind of the classic difference of what a member of Congress is and what the country is. There's a real issue out there, and we should be addressing our privacy of our data across all social media platforms. The problem is we see the bull's-eye in front of us, and then they're shooting 90 degrees to the left or right, trying to figure out how to address it by trying to ban a platform. In reality, we have to take on all the platforms to make sure that we're protecting people and the privacy of their data. But, you know, what we're doing isn't even close to that.

DETROW: So it seems like you're saying that the personal information being sucked up by TikTok is happening, but your point is that this happens on Facebook. This happens on Instagram. This happens on Twitter as well. And I see that. But there's the specific question here with TikTok of the Chinese government and its interactions with the company. What's your response to that?

POCAN: They haven't shown us anything yet to say that's being done, right? Normally, we would have classified briefing or some sort of briefing if that was the case. That hasn't happened. But you know, what is happening is Congress, the average age, I think, is 57.5. And if you asked, I would guess somewhere between 80 and 90% of members have never been on TikTok, but they certainly have lots of opinions. And this week, I think we had a relatively cringeworthy hearing where members, you know, asked questions about, does TikTok access your internet and, you know, is the leader of China your boss and all sorts of other really crazy questions, which is what often happens is, you know, on a lot of different technology issues, you know, members of Congress, especially, you know, on some of these committees, are not probably the most well versed on these issues.

DETROW: Yes.

POCAN: The reality, though, is there is a real problem out there. And, you know, I think some of the antitrust subcommittee work on judiciary has been actually trying to get at going after some of these social media giants. The problem is, in order to go after all of them, you have to go after a lot of lobbyists in Washington. You got to go after some of the richest people in the country, who, by the way, happened to contribute to both Democrats and Republicans. And that makes it tougher. So in trying to act like we're addressing the problem, I think a lot of people are just missing the target and saying, let's go after TikTok because maybe, possibly, they could do this. And if they were actually right, then we should have questions about why we're making phones or computers in China, why we have cloud services out of China.

DETROW: You did mention lobbyists. I do want to ask, have you had conversations with TikTok, which is certainly mounting a lobbying campaign as it comes under this pressure?

POCAN: No. In fact, what's funny is my office has just heard me complaining about this because, you know, I have to be one of the people who's one of 150 million people that is a consumer of TikTok. But there certainly is an issue about how they deal with our data and privacy and in pushing certain content. And I'm not saying that we see that coming out of TikTok, but we see that coming out of social media in general. Those are real issues that we should be able to, in a bipartisan way, address. And some of this, unfortunately, I think falls into the category of xenophobia.

DETROW: You did say a lot of the deep concerns at the heart of this are hypothetical. At this point, there's not clear evidence. But TikTok did admit that employees in China accessed the personal data of some U.S. journalists who were reporting on company leaks. Was that specific issue - which again, TikTok did admit - concerning to you?

POCAN: Anytime they're misusing - any social media platform is misusing or, without our knowledge, doing some work with data, it should concern everyone.

DETROW: You're a top progressive. A lot of younger progressive voters use TikTok every single day. I mean, what do you think the real-world response would be if this ever was somehow banned? I mean, you're talking about the fact that a lot of lawmakers are not, you know, deeply connected to this platform, but millions and millions of younger Americans are.

POCAN: Yeah. I mean, then that's the disconnect. In fact, you know, even younger members - I got to admit, I had a conversation with a younger member who's like kind of giving some of the rhetoric that bluntly comes out of some of the paid organizing efforts by some of the other companies that are out there trying to, you know, paint TikTok in a certain way. And I finally said to the person, have you ever been on TikTok? And they said, no. And I just find it fascinating how, you know, people have so many opinions about something that they've never even taken a look at. We should do something about social media platforms and privacy of data and the pushing of disinformation. That should be something...

DETROW: What would you do, though? Because...

POCAN: You bring in...

DETROW: ...Information is that the heart of so many of these social media companies.

POCAN: Sure.

DETROW: So what's the fix?

POCAN: What we need to do is figure out exactly how the platforms are collecting data and how they use it and how they're using brokers and how they're pushing some of the disinformation that we know exists, and then figure out some policy around that that protects consumers so that you can still have an online platform, which is the reality of where we are in 2023 America or, for that matter, of the world. But you can do it in a way that protects consumers.

DETROW: Isn't there a broader problem here that the people who run this country don't seem to understand a core part of its economy?

POCAN: We do need to have outsiders sometimes present some of that expertise to Congress so that we can actually get our handle on it. I mean, we're not the fastest-moving entity, right? I think sloths sometimes watch Congress and ask why we're moving so slowly. This is one of those issues that we just don't have the expertise. We need to get that in. We need to bring these companies in. And we can't be persuaded by lobbyists or, for that matter, rich individuals who own some of these other platforms or affiliated with them, that we ignore their platform, but we'll look at a different one.

DETROW: Sloths move faster than the Congress. Slots also make good social media content, usually, I've found.

POCAN: I think you're right. I think you're right.

DETROW: That's Congressman Mark Pocan. Congressman Pocan, thanks so much for joining us.

POCAN: Absolutely. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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