TikTok CEO grilled by skeptical lawmakers on safety, content
WASHINGTON — A nearly six-hour grilling of TikTok’s CEO by lawmakers brought the platform’s 150 million U.S. users no closer to an answer as to whether the app will be wiped from their devices.
U.S. lawmakers on Thursday pressed Shou Zi Chew 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 should not be banned due to its Chinese connections.
In a bipartisan effort to rein in the power of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers hurled questions on a host of topics, including TikTok’s content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from Beijing, and its spying on journalists.
Chew spent most of the hearing attempting to push back assertions 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 committed by China against the Uyghurs, and seemed taken aback by a TikTok video displayed by one lawmaker that advocated for violence against the House committee holding the hearing.
The rare public appearance by the 40-year-old Singapore native comes at a crucial time for the company. TikTok has ballooned its American user base to 150 million in a few short years, but its increasing dominance is being threated by a potential nationwide ban in the U.S. and growing fears among officials about protecting user data from China’s communist government.
There’s also symbolism for lawmakers in taking on TikTok, which has been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology, as well as heighted tensions due to 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,” Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, said in her opening statement.
Chew told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied 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.
Nevertheless, the company 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 included images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.
Concerns about the platform increased when 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.
Aware of its weakness, TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group.
“Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” Chew said.
But for many others, it is. The Biden administration has reportedly demanded TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company to avoid a nationwide ban. China has said it would oppose those attempts. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a separate committee hearing Thursday that he believes TikTok is a security threat, and “should be ended one way or another.”
In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, Republican Rep. Kat Cammack played a TikTok video showing a shooting gun with a caption that included the House committee, 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 said the company on Thursday removed the video and banned the account that posted it.