A nearly six-hour barbeque of TikTok’s CEO by lawmakers got the platform’s 150 million US users no closer to an answer on whether the app will be deleted from their devices.
US Lawmakers pressured Shou Zi Chew on Thursday over data security and harmful content, responding skeptically during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the hugely popular video-sharing app prioritizes user safety and is not banned due to its Chinese connections should be.
In a bipartisan attempt to curb the power of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers threw out questions on a variety of issues, including tick tock‘s content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from Beijing and how it spy on journalists.
Chew spent most of the hearing dismissing claims that TikTok or its Chinese Parent company ByteDance are tools of the Chinese government. But he failed to answer uncomfortable questions about human rights abuses China had committed against the Uyghurs and seemed surprised by a TikTok video shown by a lawmaker who advocated violence against the House of Representatives committee that held the hearing.
The 40-year-old Singapore native’s rare public appearance comes at a crucial time for the company. TikTok has grown its American user base to 150 million in just a few years, but its increasing dominance is being threatened by a possible nationwide ban in the US and growing fears among officials to protect user data from China’s communist government.
There’s also symbolism for lawmakers to take on TikTok, which has become embroiled in a broader geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology, as well as heightened tensions over recent balloon politics and China’s relationship with Russia.
“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” said committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, in her opening statement.
Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied it is a national security risk. He reiterated the company’s plan to protect US user data by storing it on servers owned and operated by software giant Oracle.
“Let me be clear: ByteDance is not a representative of China or any other country,” Chew said.
Still, the company has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could fall into the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favorable to the country’s communist leaders.
In 2019, The Guardian reported that TikTok instructed its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square and contain images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.
Concerns about the platform grew when ByteDance admitted in December that it had fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists and people associated with them last summer while trying to identify the source of a leaked report about the company uncover.
Aware of its weakness, TikTok has attempted to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying that 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors like the Carlyle Group.
“Ownership is not the focus to address these concerns,” Chew said.
But for many others, it is. The Biden administration has reportedly urged TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company to avoid a nationwide ban. China has announced that it will resist these attempts. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a separate committee hearing on Thursday that he believes TikTok is a security threat and “should be ended one way or another.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “everyone was watching” as Thursday’s TikTok hearing took place at the White House. However, she declined to comment on specific actions the administration might take to address her TikTok concerns.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, Republican Rep. Kat Cammack played a TikTok video showing a firearm with a caption that included the House Committee, with the exact date before it was officially announced.
“You expect us to believe that you are capable of protecting the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you cannot even protect the people in this room,” Cammack said.
TikTok said the company removed the video Thursday and suspended the account that posted it.
Concerns about the type of content Americans encounter online or how their data is being collected by tech companies aren’t new. Congress wanted to limit the amount of data technology companies tracked by consumers through a national privacy law, but those efforts have failed.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and one of the few allies TikTok appears to have on the hill, said lawmakers concerned about protecting users shouldn’t target TikTok, they should target themselves instead focus on a national law protecting user data across all social media platforms. Chew also noted the failure of US social media companies to address the very concerns TikTok has been criticized for.
“American social enterprises don’t have a good track record when it comes to privacy and user security,” he said. “Look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example.”
Committee members also shared a variety of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin, didn’t feature the same potentially dangerous content as the American product.
Chew replied that it depends on the laws of the country where the app operates. He said the company has about 40,000 moderators tracking malicious content and an algorithm that flags material.
Asset management firm Wedbush described the hearing as a “disaster” for TikTok, making a ban more likely if it doesn’t divest itself of its Chinese parent company. Emile El Nems, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said a ban would benefit TikTok rivals YouTube, Instagram and Snap, “which will likely result in a higher revenue share of the overall advertising wallet.”
To avoid a ban, TikTok has tried to sell officials a $1.5 billion plan, Project Texas, that would forward all US user data to servers owned and managed by software giant Oracle.
As of October, all new US user data was stored within the country. The company this month began wiping all historical US user data from non-Oracle servers, a process that is expected to be completed later this year, Chew said.
Republican MP Dan Crenshaw noted that no matter what the company does to assure lawmakers that it will protect US user data, the Chinese government can still have significant leverage over its parent company and require it to protect data through its national to issue safety laws.
Congress, the White House, the US Armed Forces and more than half of US states have already banned use of the app from official devices. Similar bans have been imposed in other countries, including Denmark, Canada, the UK and New Zealand, and the European Union.
A total TikTok ban in the US would risk political and popular backlash from its young user base and civil rights groups.
David Kennedy, a former government intelligence officer who runs cybersecurity firm TrustedSec, said he agrees with restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones, but a nationwide ban might be too extreme.
“We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they starting to ban us now?” Kennedy said. “It could escalate very quickly.”