Like the Biden administration escalates its threats against TikTok, the company’s CEO first appeared before Congress on Thursday. Given the US government’s aggressive recent stance, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was destined for a hard turn under the glare of the government’s big, bright lights — which is exactly what played out during the sprawling five-hour hearing.
In opening statements, Chew offered assurances that the company would ensure the safety of minors, strengthen its privacy and security practices, and prevent any possibility of “unauthorized foreign access” to US user data.
“…I understand that there are concerns arising from the imprecise belief that TikTok’s corporate structure is beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about US users with the Chinese government,” Chew said. “This is emphatically not true.”
Chew claimed that TikTok has never shared data about US users with the Chinese government, nor has it ever received a request to do so. If China did request access to data on Americans, Chew argued the company would not comply.
“Let me say this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.
As the hearing unfolded, lawmakers from both political parties pressed Chew for answers about the company’s relationship with China, its failure to moderate disturbing content and its plans to build trust in the US, its largest market.
Faced with a deluge of critical questions, TikTok tore a page out of the classic radio play book produced in recent years by companies like Meta and Google. While Chew came across as comfortable and friendly — more than some US tech executives can say — he exaggerated some of the company’s achievements and time and time again ignored substantive answers to tricky issues.
A number of representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on young users. After Chew touted the 60-minute viewing limit for teens, Rep. John Sarbanes retconned the company’s claims about its protection against social media addiction.
“My understanding is that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” said Sarbanes. “I mean let’s face it, our teens are half smarter than us and they know how to use technology and they can get around those limits if they want to.”
Early in his testimony, Chew cited a report by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, in which he claimed the organization found definitively no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. The Citizen Lab director responded in real time on Twitter, criticizing the characterization.
“Our analysis was explicit about the fact that we have no insight into what happened to user data after it was collected and sent back to the TikTok servers,” he wrote. “While we couldn’t determine whether it happened, we even speculated on possible mechanisms by which the Chinese government could use unconventional techniques to obtain TikTok user data by putting pressure on ByteDance.”
In another conversation with Florida Representative Neal Dunn, Chew objected to the use of the term “espionage” to describe an incident in which ByteDance employees monitored U.S. citizens through TikTok to determine the source of leaked information. identify.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Chew took to the app to announce that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the US, a significant increase from its last reported numbers. The milestone cuts both ways, highlighting concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and threatens that a US ban would outrage users and creators alike. At least one group of makers is protesting the proposed ban in Washington, DC, this week to draw attention to the negative impact it would have on their businesses.
“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is being compromised and their data manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” said committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “Worse, we know that Big Tech companies, such as TikTok, use malicious algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous online content.”
The commission pressured Chew over the steps TikTok is taking to protect children on the app, noting that the hearing is the latest attempt to hold tech companies accountable for their negative impact on society. Lawmakers also highlighted concerns TikTok parent company ByteDance is based in China with Chinese ownership that it could be used by the Chinese government to further state interests.
While there is no evidence that China collects data on Americans or intentionally shapes political behavior through its algorithms, there is cause for concern that the company’s privacy practices are not airtight.
Last year, an internal investigation at the company confirmed reports that employees at its Beijing headquarters planned to follow American journalists through their TikTok activities in an effort to identify the source of internal leaks. That incident apparently sparked probes from multiple federal agencies, first reported last week. The fraud division of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is working with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy, further straining the company’s U.S. operations. to stand.
TikTok has long balked at privacy concerns, arguing that TikTok’s US operations are shielded from the Beijing-based leadership – and from China itself. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the US government is currently trying to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, threatening a national ban on the app if the company fails to comply.
TikTok responded by pointing to its recent self-regulation campaign, a venture known as Project Texas. The campaign is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the US that aims to portray the company’s US operations as transparent and involves about $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate restructuring. The idea is that TikTok itself could set up a firewall between the company’s US operations and its Chinese property, potentially placating the US government.
It doesn’t look like the US will pull out, but it’s far from clear that they’ll be able to follow up on recent threats. The White House attempted a similar maneuver during the Trump White House, but its efforts fell apart before being picked up again by the Biden administration in an unusual show of policy continuity between the two. Former President Trump’s threats against TikTok eventually culminated in a plan to force ByteDance to sell its US operations to Oracle by the end of 2020. TikTok also rejected a takeover offer from Microsoft at the time, but over time the deal with Oracle also fell apart.
Oracle never bought the company, but it’s still in the picture. TikTok later teamed up with Oracle to move US data to US servers with the company and to conduct audits of its algorithms and content moderation systems – an odd move and an odd partner to do this with, given Oracle co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison’s participation in the campaign to undermine the legitimate results of the 2020 US presidential election.
Given the commitment to the company and its users — and politicians’ propensity to stir up anti-China sentiment — Thursday’s TikTok was explosive in shape, even when not in operation. Between lawmakers who often choose to tribune rather than let their only witness speak and others who fail to understand the basic functions of the app in question, Thursday’s hearing offered more bark than bite.