TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew reacts during a session for him to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled “TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms,” as lawmakers scrutinize the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
“Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” boomed Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., speaking to the TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, a couple hours into a marathon hearing about the potential threat to U.S. consumers from the massively popular short-form video app.
“We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security, we care about our economy and we sure as heck care about our children,” Carter said.
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Chew found little reprieve during the questioning from either side of the aisle on Thursday. Lawmakers grilled him on the app’s potential to harm kids through its addictive features and potentially dangerous posts, as well as whether data from U.S. users could end up in the hands of the Chinese government through its China-based owner, ByteDance.
After more than five hours of questioning, it’s clear that lawmakers on the committee are not satisfied with TikTok’s current ownership structure, even if not all of them are calling for a full ban. But Chew’s testimony did not quell many concerns that lawmakers had about its ties to China or the adequacy of its risk-mitigation plan, Project Texas. In some cases, it may even provide fodder for those who believe the risk from TikTok is unacceptable.
“I’ve not been reassured by anything you’ve said so far and I think quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., said at one point in the hearing.
It’s not clear how Thursday’s hearing will translate into action. But several members seemed focused on passing a comprehensive digital privacy bill, like the one the panel approved last Congress but didn’t get to the floor for a full chamber vote. That sort of legislation would help resolve data privacy concerns that exist across all tech companies, including U.S. businesses like Meta, Google, Twitter and Snap.
Congress has been mulling such a bill for years with no results. Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., noted this was the 32nd hearing Congress has held on privacy and Big Tech.
A ban or forced sale of the app, which some members think is the only way to solve the immediate risks, is another matter. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) is reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of TikTok’s predecessor app, Musical.ly. It could recommend that the president force divestment if members can’t agree on an acceptable alternative to mitigate national security risks.
Or, the government could find other ways to try to ban the app. For example, the bipartisan RESTRICT Act introduced in the Senate would give the Commerce secretary the ability to review technology from foreign adversary countries and recommend the president ban the technology if the risks can’t be appropriately mitigated.
In one particularly dramatic moment on Thursday, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., played a video she found on TikTok showing what appeared to be an animated gun continuously reloading with the caption “Me asf at the, House Energy and Commerce Committee on 3/23/23.” TikTok removed the video at some point during the hearing.
TikTok played down the importance of Thursday’s hearing in a statement.
“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said. “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.”
Clarity on China connections
Chew began his opening remarks by sharing details of his background and the countries to which he’s been connected. Chew said that he’s lived in Singapore, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Like him, his parents were born in Singapore and his wife was born in Virginia.
Notably, China wasn’t on the list.
But during the hearing, lawmakers drilled down into TikTok’s ties to China through its parent company.
While TikTok recently found a few allies on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did not display a similar level of sympathy. On Wednesday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., likened the focus on TikTok to a “red scare” over China, but many of his Democratic colleagues on Thursday seemed deeply concerned about security risks stemming from TikTok’s Chinese ownership.
Throughout the hearing, the lawmakers interrogated Chew about the ability of China-based ByteDance employees to access U.S. data, its failure to remove some dangerous or harmful posts and whether the company has interacted or aligned itself with the Chinese Communist Party.
Chew denied that TikTok shares data with the Chinese Communist Party. He said the company doesn’t have a policy to ask individual employees about their party affiliations in China, but pointed out that ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo is not a member of the party.
A key question for members of the committee seemed to be whether TikTok could uphold American values while being a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Lawmakers and intelligence officials fear that Chinese government officials could access U.S. user data from ByteDance through a Chinese law that allows officials to obtain company information for purported national security reasons.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values — values for freedom, human rights, and innovation,” said Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R.-Wash., who supports a TikTok ban, in prepared remarks.
“TikTok needs to be an American company with American values and end its ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Darren Soto, R-Fla., later echoed.
Chew admitted that China-based employees can still access some U.S. data, but that new data will stop flowing once the firm finishes deleting it from its Singapore and Virginia-based servers as part of its Project Texas mitigation plan.
But several members said they think the project is still inadequate to protect American data.
“I don’t find what you suggested with Project Texas and this firewall that’s being suggested to whoever will be acceptable to me,” ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”
It didn’t help that The Wall Street Journal reported that China said it would oppose a forced sale of TikTok, saying that it would involve an export of technology.
“Despite your assertions to the contrary, China certainly thinks it is in control of TikTok and its software,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, pointing to the news article.
Burgess and others also asked Chew about his preparation and whether ByteDance employees were involved in getting him ready for the hearing. Chew said TikTok’s team in D.C. helped him prep.
Later, Chew told Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., that TikTok shares legal counsel with ByteDance. Griffith said under that arrangement, “there is no firewall, legally,” since those lawyers could share information with each other.
When Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., asked if Beijing has persecuted the Uyghur minority group in the country, Chew sought to redirect the discussion back to TikTok.
“While it’s deeply concerning to hear about all accounts of human rights abuse, my role here is to explain what our platform does,” Chew said.
Later, when Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, asked if TikTok supports genocide, Chew again sought to bring the conversation back to app. Asked a second time, Chew answered that no, it does not.
Toward the end of the hearing, Chew expressed that his testimony was attempting to do something almost impossible. Referencing a report that members brought up from the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, Chew said, “Citizen Lab is saying that they cannot prove a negative, which is what I have been trying to do for the last four hours.”
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