TikTok CEO Shou Chew on Thursday faced skeptical lawmakers in the US Congress to try to fend off calls to ban the hugely popular video app.
“There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform, and we know we have a responsibility to protect them,” Chew said in remarks prepared for his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration demanded that ByteDance, the app’s Chinese parent company, sell its stake in the app or face a possible ban. Officials are concerned TikTok could be forced to share US user data with the Chinese government, posing a national security threat. In December, US lawmakers banned the app from government devices. Other countries, including, EU member states and Taiwan, have taken similar steps.
Lawmakers on Thursday repeatedly questioned Chew about ByteDance’s ties to the Chinese government, expressing doubt TikTok would be able to protect US users’ data. They also alleged that TikTok could be used by the Chinese government to influence public opinion in the US.
Though the main thrust of the hearing focused on alleged ties to China, lawmakers also touched on other concerns, including data collection and protecting teens and young people from harmful content on TikTok.
Following the hearing, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the hearing was “dominated by political grandstanding” and failed to address industry-wide issues.
“Also not mentioned today by members of the Committee: the livelihoods of the 5 million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans,” said Oberwetter.
Here are some of the most interesting comments from the hearing:
Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, in her opening statement: “Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security. TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, biometric data and more. … TikTok surveils us all. And the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole. We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.”
She continued: “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
Chew, in his opening statement: “We have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem. We have addressed them with real action. … That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, building what amounts to a firewall that seals off protected US user data from unauthorized foreign access. The bottom line is this: American data, stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel. We call this initiative Project Texas.”
Chew, on legacy US data: “We have legacy US data sitting in our servers in Virginia and in Singapore. We’re deleting those and we expect that to be complete this year. When that is done, all protected US data will be under the protection of US law and under the control of the US led security team. This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law.”
Rep. Buddy Carter, on harmful viral videos like the Milk Crate challenge: “Why is it that TikTok consistently fails to identify and moderate these kinds of harmful videos? Why is it that you allow this to go on? We’ve already heard … from parents who are here with us who have lost children.”
Chew responds: “This is a real industry challenge and we’re working on our…”
Carter: “No, no, it’s not industry. This is TikTok. We’re talking about TikTok. We’re talking about why is it that you can’t control this. … Tell me why this goes on.”
Rep. Darren Soto, on ByteDance ownership: “Mr. Chew, would TikTok be prepared to divest from ByteDance and Chinese Communist Party ties if the Department of Treasury instructed you all to do so?”
Chew responds: “I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just for one example.”
Rep. Neal Dunn asks Chew directly: “Has ByteDance spied on Americans at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party?”
Chew responds: “No.”
Dunn follows up, citing a Forbes article that ByteDance planned to use TikTok to monitor the location of US citizens: “I ask you again, Mr. Chew: Has ByteDance spied on American citizens?”
Chew responds: “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it. This is ultimately…” Dunn cuts off his response.
Rep. August Pfluger, on Project Texas: “Please rename your project. Texas is not the appropriate name. We stand for freedom and transparency, and we don’t want your project.”