San Francisco Chronicle
TikTok CEO grilled over safety, content
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers questioned the CEO of TikTok over data security and harmful content Thursday, responding skeptically during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the hugely popular videosharing app prioritizes user safety and should not be banned.
Shou Zi Chew's rare public appearance came at a crucial time for the company, which has 150 million American users but is under increasing pressure from U.S. officials. TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, have been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology.
In a bipartisan effort to rein in the power of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed Chew on a host of topics, ranging from TikTok's content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure U.S. data from Beijing and its spying on journalists.
“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in her opening statement.
Chew, a 40-year-old native of Singapore, told the committee that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied that it's a national security risk. He reiterated the company's plan to protect U.S. user data by storing it on servers maintained and owned by the software giant Oracle.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.
TikTok has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in 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 was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square and images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.
ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees last summer who accessed data on two journalists and people connected to them while attempting to uncover the source of a leaked report about the company.
TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying 60 percent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as the Carlyle Group.
“Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” Chew said.
China has said it would oppose any U.S. attempts to force ByteDance to sell the app.
In one of the most dramatic moments, Rep. Kat Cammack, RFla., played a TikTok video that showed a shooting gun with a caption that included the committee holding the hearing, with the exact date before it was formally announced.
“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can't even protect the people in this room,” Cammack said.
TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said the company on Thursday removed the violent video aimed at the committee and banned the account that posted it.
Chew noted the failure of U.S. social media companies to address the very concerns for which TikTok was being criticized.
“American social companies don't have a good track record with data privacy and user security,” he said. “Look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example.”
Committee members also showed a host of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform's Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same potentially dangerous content as the U.S. product.
Chew responded that it depends on the laws of the country where the app is operating. He said the company has about 40,000 moderators that track harmful content and an algorithm that flags material.
Wealth management firm Wedbush described the hearing as a “disaster” for TikTok that made a ban more likely if the social media platform doesn't separate from its Chinese parent.