TikTok's CEO is defiant as US lawmakers doubt assurances on safety
Published in Political News
TikTok Chief Executive Shou Chew defended his company against a barrage of criticism from hostile U.S. lawmakers, repeatedly asserting the app’s independence from its Chinese owners.
Chew said its Beijing-based owner, ByteDance Ltd., is mostly owned by international investors and most of its board members are American.
“The bottom line is this is American data on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” Chew said in an appearance Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 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.
Chew faced combative questioning from members of both parties — who often cut off his attempts to answer — in his first appearance before Congress. The hearing comes as lawmakers and the Biden administration are exploring how to force ByteDance to sell its shares of the unit or face a ban in the U.S.
“You are here because the American people need to hear the truth about the threat TikTok poses to mental health and national security,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s chair and a Washington Republican, said. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
The hearing took a dark turn when Florida Republican Michael Bilirakis played a compilation of TikTok videos about suicide accompanied by ominous music.
Chew said 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,” McMorris Rodgers said of TikTok’s arguments of why the service is safe.
Rodgers said the app’s wide popularity — used by 150 million Americans — is precisely why it poses such a threat. She called on Chew to tell the truth about TikTok, but suggested that it will be hard for him to win over his critics.
The room was overflowing Thursday 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.
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,” Shou said emphatically about the privacy measures the company has put in place.
The centerpiece of Chew’s offering to quell concerns about Chinese influence — a $1.5 billion investment in U.S.-based data security measures — has already been rejected by U.S. government officials, who are demanding that ByteDance sell its shares or face a U.S. 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 U.S. user data “has continued unabated.”
Ohio Rep. Bob Latta asked Chew “yes or no,” do Chinese employees including engineers have access to U.S. user data. Chew’s response — “this is a complex subject” — drew incredulous chuckles in the room.
New Jersey Rep. 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.
Chew also 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.
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