TikTok Chief Executive Shou Chew’s appearance in Congress on Thursday did little to calm the bipartisan fury directed at the viral video-sharing service. If anything, his more than four hours of testimony gave critics more fuel to insist the app be banned in the US.
“We came here hoping to hear some action that would alleviate our concerns,” said Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat. “I’ve not been reassured by anything you’ve said so far. I think quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers.”
Chew faced hostile questioning from members of both parties — who often cut off his attempts to answer — in his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The testimony comes as lawmakers and the Biden administration are exploring how to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance Ltd., to sell its shares of the unit or block it in the US.
Chew said TikTok is independent of its Beijing-based owner and the platform’s headquarters are in Singapore and Los Angeles.
“The bottom line is this is American data on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” Chew said. He could not unequivocally say that no ByteDance employees have access to that data, saying rather that he’s “seen no evidence” of that happening.
Ohio Representative Bob Latta asked Chew “yes or no,” do Chinese employees including engineers have access to US user data? Chew’s response - “this is a complex subject” - drew incredulous chuckles in the room.
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Chew answered other yes or no questions with incomplete denials. “That’s not how we see it,” he said when asked whether TikTok is a Chinese company. “I’ve seen no evidence,” he said when asked whether ByteDance employees access US user data.
When asked by Representative Neal Dunn of Florida whether China can use TikTok to spy on Americans, Chew replied, “no.” When confronted with a Forbes article regarding ByteDance employees accessing the data of US journalists, Chew said “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it” — again drawing murmurs of disbelief from the crowd.
Chew was repeatedly reminded that he was under oath, echoing the prevailing sentiment on Capitol Hill this week that any statement from TikTok or ByteDance is not to be trusted.
The hearing took a dark turn when Florida Republican Michael Bilirakis played a compilation of TikTok videos about suicide accompanied by ominous music.
Michelle and Dean Nasca, whose 16-year old son died by suicide after using TikTok, were present at the hearing. The couple is suing ByteDance, alleging that TikTok sent their son more than 1,000 videos related to suicide, hopelessness and self-harm.
Matthew Bergman, an attorney for the family, said during a break that Chew’s testimony “gives truth to the term obfuscation” and said he was gratified to see bipartisan support for preventing more of tragedies.
Chew told the lawmakers that TikTok takes the mental health of its users very seriously and refers people asking about suicide or death it to the platform’s safety page.
“We aren’t buying it,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s chair and a Washington Republican, said of TikTok’s arguments of why the service is safe.
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Rodgers said the app’s wide popularity — used by 150 million Americans — is precisely why it poses such a threat.
The room was overflowing with TikTokers who credit the app with giving them a voice or growing their small business. But the lawmakers weren’t assuaged, firing rapid-fire questions to Chew.
“Congressman, you’re giving me no time to answer the questions, I reject the characterisations,” Chew said after an exchange with Representative Neal Dunn, a Florida Republican.
Chew said the TikTok algorithm drives a great experience for many users, citing content about science and books.
“Yes, there are some bad actors who come in and post violative content, and it’s our job to remove that,” Chew said. “But the overwhelming experience is a positive one for our community.”
Chew came prepared for all the accusations he would hear from lawmakers. In his opening statement he tried to assure the committee that TikTok operates independently from ByteDance.
“We believe we are the only company — the only company — that applies this level of transparency,” Chew said emphatically about the privacy measures the company has put in place.
When asked by Arizona Republican Debbie Lesko whether he believes the Chinese Communist Party represses the Uighur minority in Western China, Chew gives a general answer about all human rights abuses and says he was there to talk about TikTok.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Lesko said.
The centerpiece of Chew’s offering to quell concerns about Chinese influence — a $1.5 billion investment in US-based data security measures — has already been rejected by US government officials, who are demanding that ByteDance sell its shares or face a US ban, according to people familiar with the national security review of the app.
Chew, in his prepared remarks, called those reports “speculation” and said “conversations with the government are ongoing,” and TikTok’s effort to isolate and protect US user data “has continued unabated.”
Moody’s released a statement during the hearing about how a ban would impact the share price of other US social media companies. Even the famously secretive Committee on Foreign Investment in the US — which hasn’t even confirmed that it is reviewing TikTok — released a statement with a general warning about data security.
“As a general matter, Cfius does not comment on transactions,” the statement read. “Broadly speaking, some transactions can present data security risks — including providing a foreign person or government with access to troves of Americans’ sensitive personal data as well as access to intellectual property, source code, or other potentially sensitive information.”
Chew compared the steps TikTok is taking — to protect both data security and the safety of young users — to the practices of other big tech companies. He described the measures TikTok takes to verify the age of its users and enforce restrictions for children and teens as industry-leading.
“It’s not a fair fight, the algorithms are on one side of the screen and human brains are on the other side of the screen,” Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes said, emphasising that young brains are still not fully developed and are no match for TikTok’s technology.
New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said while he supports comprehensive data-privacy legislation, such as the bill he sponsored with McMorris Rodgers last year, that doesn’t let TikTok off the hook. He said he has “wide concerns” not just about TikTok, but about all social media platforms.
Florida’s Darren Soto, a Democrat, said “the genie is really out of the bottle” with so many Americans already on TikTok. He extended his concern to other US social media companies and said it’s up to this committee to set stricter rules for the whole industry.
“We have to pass comprehensive legislation that got out of this committee but eluded us last year,” Soto said.
Indiana Republican Greg Pence said, “This is the 32 nd hearing we’ve held about privacy and Big Tech.” Pointing his finger at Chew and raising his voice, he asked how much profit TikTok makes from the data collected from his children, grandchildren and neighbors.
“I respect and understand your opinion,” Chew said, insisting that most people on TikTok have a positive experience.
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