Lawmakers grill TikTok CEO over data collection: 4 healthcare takeaways

On March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress regarding the app's data collection practices. The interaction was hardly amicable. 

"Your platform should be banned," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington during her opening remarks. "I expect today you'll say anything to avoid this outcome." 

The Chinese government has "significant leverage" over companies under its jurisdiction, including TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, CNN reported. Lawmakers — both Democrat and Republican — have criticized the app, concerned about the data it collects from American users and its ties to China. 

In early March, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the "RESTRICT Act," and the White House endorsed it. If passed, the bill would give the secretary of commerce broad power to regulate tech produced by China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela — countries with which the U.S. has "adversarial" relations, according to NBC

When members of Congress questioned Mr. Chew on TikTok's intentions, some criticized his hazy responses. Here are three healthcare takeaways from the hearing, which lasted more than five hours: 

1. Collecting health data: The RESTRICT Act includes heightened protections for sensitive data, specifically location and health data. Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey asked Mr. Chew to abstain from collecting such metrics. 

"Would you commit to not gathering or dealing with location or health data unless you get affirmative consent from the consumer?" Mr. Pallone asked. 

"Congressman, in principle, I support that," Mr. Chew replied. "Which by the way, we do not collect precise GPS data at this point, and I do not believe we collect any health data."

Mr. Pallone asked again if Mr. Chew was willing to commit not to collect location or health data. Mr. Chew said other companies in TikTok's industry frequently collect that data. 

"I know other companies do it. I don't think they should without affirmative consent," Mr. Pallone said. "You said you wanna be a good actor, so why not make that commitment to me today?"

"We're committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect," Mr. Chew said. "I don't believe what we collect is more than most."

2. Medical misinformation: Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado asked Mr. Chew about frequent medical misinformation on the app. Some of the content is "extreme," she alleged. For example, TikTok searches on "safe abortion" yield false claims that papaya seeds are "herbal aborts." One study showed that TikTok had a hydroxychloroquine tutorial, claiming the drug could be manufactured from grapefruit and used to cure COVID-19. 

"What more is TikTok doing to try to strengthen its review to keep this information from coming across to people?" Ms. DeGette asked. 

"Congresswoman, the dangerous misinformation that you mentioned is not allowed on our platform," Mr. Chew replied. "It violates them."

"I'm sorry to report it is on your platform, though," Ms. DeGette said. 

Mr. Chew responded that TikTok works "very hard" to prevent misinformation, but is imperfect. When Ms. DeGette asked how the platform was working to become "more perfect," Mr. Chew listed existing measures, like redirecting users to safety resources. 

"I asked you specifically how you were increasing, how you're trying to increase your review of this, and you gave me only generalized statements that you're investing, that you're concerned, that you're doing more," Ms. DeGette said. "That's not enough for me. That's not enough for the parents of America."

3. Telehealth providers: Rep. Paul Tonko of New York expressed concerns that TikTok's algorithm "preys on vulnerable people," including those suffering from mental health conditions like addictions or eating disorders. He alleged that TikTok has received patient health information and records of browsing activity from telehealth providers like BetterHelp and Cerebral. 

"So Mr. Chew, will TikTok continue to get information from third parties on its users' health, including their mental health? Yes or no?" Mr. Tonko asked. 

"We will continue to work with experts, yes. If that's the question," Mr. Chew replied. "To identify this issue." 

Mr. Chew held that the platform works with experts to set guidelines for TikTok's young users — referencing a 60-minute time limit for those under age 18 — but does not get user health information from third parties, "as far as [he's] aware."

4. Children's mental health crisis: Rep. Kim Schrier, MD, of Washington, a pediatrician, questioned TikTok's impact on children's mental health. The constant scrolling takes young people away from meaningful relationships and pushes back bedtimes, leading to issues from depression to academic failure, she alleges. 

"It is your business model to keep eyes on the app, to keep it addictive," Dr. Schrier said. "I know you likely have experts who have advised you on how to design this to keep those eyes on your platform for the longest possible time. So, I wanna know if you have psychologists or other health experts on staff looking at screen time, hours of use and sleep." 

"We worked with the Digital Wellness Lab, Congresswoman, at the Boston Children's Hospital, and we came up with a 60 minute default limit for any users under 18," Mr. Chew replied. "We were the first to do it in our industry."

Children and teens can easily opt out of that feature, Dr. Schrier responded.

Mr. Chew said parents can use the "family safe" tool to set restrictions on their children's phones. Each family must decide what is best for them, as many people come to the app for an informative experience, he said.  

"We've also heard today that well over 20 percent of the information is misinformation," Dr. Schrier responded. "We heard that about medical remedies that are not really remedies. We've heard it about mental health topics. I mean, this becomes very dangerous, especially when people who are not trained to think very critically are being given information and thinking that it's true." 

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