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Ex-Twitter, Facebook executives urge lawmakers to rein in social media platforms


(Bloomberg) – A senior executive at video app TikTok Inc., which is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance Ltd., told a U.S. Senate panel he was negotiating with federal regulators over restricting the access to user data for employees in China, but refused to commit to a complete shutdown.

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Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, has repeatedly asked the platform’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, to say that the company would block Chinese access to all US data. Pappas declined to do so, saying instead that the company would continue to work with federal agencies to draft an agreement to protect US user data.

“Our final agreement with the US government will satisfy all national security concerns,” Pappas told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Critics say Chinese ownership of TikTok puts American users at risk. TikTok says it stores US user data in the United States and works with Oracle Corp. to create a firewall around the data. TikTok is under the scrutiny of a number of government agencies, including the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius.

The national security review comes as tensions have risen between the United States and China over trade, Taiwan’s status and China’s growing military assertiveness. The Biden administration is looking for ways to curb U.S. investment in Chinese industries and has extended Trump-era tariffs on Chinese imports.

Pappas was among a group of executives from the biggest social media companies who faced skeptical questions from the panel about whether their need to attract users is at odds with restricting hate speech, such as the alleged former employees in their testimony earlier today.

Also appearing before the panel were Neal Mohan, Product Manager at Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube; Chris Cox, Product Manager at Meta Platforms Inc.; and Jay Sullivan, chief executive of Bluebird at Twitter Inc. Lawmakers asked executives about whether companies amplify misinformation or messages inciting violence to boost engagement on the platforms.

Earlier in the day, former Twitter and Facebook executives told the committee that companies could do more to curb extremism and misinformation, but would not do so unless forced to. by regulation, as their profits depend on attracting and engaging users.

YouTube’s Mohan denied that their business benefits from extreme or violent messaging.

“Our advertisers have told us unequivocally that ‘we don’t want to be associated with content that promotes hateful, violent extremism,'” Mohan said. “When that content is on our platform, they leave.”

In response to recent reports that Meta has dismantled the team responsible for resolving product issues – known as the responsible innovation team – Cox said the work of the 20 people on this team overlaps with the work broader corporate integrity, which remains.

Cox did not say directly whether employees working on product design are compensated based on product trust and safety.

Earlier in the day, Brian Boland, former vice president of Meta’s Facebook, and Alex Roetter, former Twitter senior vice president for engineering, warned the committee that social media companies had failed to remedy the harm their platforms could cause, including how their algorithms can amplify harmful content.

“Today you don’t know what’s going on with companies, you have to trust them,” Boland said. “I lost my trust with companies with what they were doing and what Meta was doing. We should go beyond trust to help researchers and journalists better understand the platforms.”

Boland contrasted corporate development with the auto industry, where advancements are tested and overseen by safety regulators before hitting the road. “There’s almost no ability to protect our future and create a crash-tested version of a car,” he said.

The hearing comes a day after Twitter whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko testified before a separate Senate committee about his allegations that Twitter’s lack of security protections poses a threat to the United States. Zatko claimed that Twitter turned a blind eye while foreign agents accessed sensitive data about US users.

Efforts to regulate the companies have so far stalled in Congress amid partisan disagreements and a surge in lobbying by tech giants and their trade groups.

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