As the Biden administration escalates its threats against TikTok, the company’s chief executive made his first appearance before Congress on Thursday. Given the U.S. government’s aggressive recent posture, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was destined for a harsh turn under the glare of the government’s big, bright lights and that’s very much what played out across the hearing’s sprawling five hours.
In opening statements, Chew offered reassurances that the company would safeguard the safety of minors, bolster its privacy and security practices and ward off any possibility of “unauthorized foreign access” to U.S. user data.
“… I understand that there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about U.S. users with the Chinese government,” Chew said. “This is emphatically untrue.”
Chew asserted that TikTok has never shared data on U.S. 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 that the company would not comply.
“Let me state 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 U.S., its biggest market.
Facing an onslaught of critical questions, TikTok tore a page out of the classic tech hearing playbook drafted by companies like Meta and Google in recent years. While Chew came off as comfortable and friendly — more than some U.S. tech executives can say — he overstated some of the company’s achievements and side-stepped substantive answers on tough issues time and time again.
A number of representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on young users. After Chew touted the app’s 60 minute watch limit for teens, Rep. John Sarbanes brought the company’s claims about its protections against social media addiction back to reality.
“My understanding is that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” Sarbanes said. “I mean, let’s face it, our teens are smarter than we are by half and they know how to use technology and they can get around these limits if they want to.”
Early in his testimony, Chew cited a report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab, claiming that the organization definitively found no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. Citizen Lab’s director responded in real time on Twitter, criticizing the characterization.
“Our analysis was explicit about having no visibility into what happened to user data once it was collected and transmitted back to TikTok’s servers,” he wrote. “Although we had no way to determine whether or not it had happened, we even speculated about possible mechanisms through which the Chinese government might use unconventional techniques to obtain TikTok user data via pressure on ByteDance.”
In another exchange with Florida Rep. Neal Dunn, Chew objected to using the term “spying” to describe an incident in which ByteDance employees surveilled U.S. citizens through TikTok in order to identify the source of leaked information.
Prior to Thursday’s hearing, Chew took to the app to announce that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the U.S., a sizable jump up from its last reported numbers. The milestone cuts both ways, underlining concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and serving as a threat that a U.S. ban would outrage users and creators alike. At least one group of creators is staging a protest of the proposed ban in Washington, D.C. this week, drawing attention to the negative impact it would have on their businesses.
“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said. “What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online.”
The committee pressed Chew over measures that TikTok is taking to protect kids on the app, noting that the hearing is the latest effort to make tech companies accountable for their negative impacts on society. Lawmakers also emphasized worries TikTok parent company ByteDance is based in China with Chinese ownership that it could be leveraged by the Chinese government to further state interests.
While there’s no evidence that China is harvesting data on Americans or intentionally shaping political behavior through its algorithms, there is reason to be concerned that the company’s privacy practices aren’t airtight.
Last year an internal investigation at the company confirmed reporting that employees at its Beijing headquarters intended to track U.S. journalists via their TikTok activity in an effort to uncover the source of internal leaks. That incident apparently prompted probes from multiple federal agencies, which were first reported last week. The Fraud Section 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, putting additional pressure on the company’s imperiled U.S. business.
TikTok has long pushed back over privacy concerns, arguing that TikTok’s American operations are walled off from its Beijing-based leadership — and from China itself. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the U.S. government is currently seeking to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, threatening a national ban on the app if the company doesn’t comply.
TikTok responded by pointing to its recent campaign to self-regulate, an undertaking known as Project Texas. The campaign is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the U.S. that seeks to portray the company’s U.S. operations as transparent and comes with about $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate re-organization. The idea is that TikTok itself can erect a firewall between the company’s American business and its Chinese ownership, potentially placating the U.S. government in the process.
The U.S. doesn’t look likely to back down, but it’s far from clear it’s in a position to follow through on recent threats. The White House attempted a similar maneuver during the Trump White House, but its efforts fell apart before being picked back up 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 U.S. operations to Oracle in late 2020. At the time, TikTok also rejected an acquisition offer from Microsoft, but in time the deal with Oracle fizzled too.
Oracle never bought the company, but it’s still in the picture. TikTok later partnered with Oracle to shift U.S. data onto U.S.-based servers with the company and to run audits of its algorithms and content moderation systems — an odd move and an odd partner to do it with, given Oracle co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison’s participation in the campaign to undermine the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Given the stakes for the company and its users — and politicians’ penchant for rousing anti-China sentiment — Thursday’s TikTok was explosive in form even when it wasn’t in function. Between lawmakers frequently opting to grandstand instead of allowing their sole witness to speak and others that failed to understand the basic features of the app in question, Thursday’s hearing offered more bark than bite.
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