TikTok Congressional Hearing: CEO Shou Zi Chew Faces US Lawmakers

March 23, Washington, D.C. – In a pivotal congressional hearing, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was grilled by US lawmakers over concerns about Chinese influence on the platform and the adverse impact of its short videos on children’s mental health. The bipartisan worries about TikTok’s control over Americans reflect the mounting apprehension and renew calls for a nationwide ban.

Can TikTok Assuage Concerns?

Chew’s testimony before Congress did little to alleviate US worries about TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance. Over the course of the five-hour hearing, Chew vehemently denied any data sharing or connections with the Chinese Communist Party. He emphasized the platform’s commitment to ensuring the safety of its 150 million American users.

Chew reassured lawmakers that TikTok has been working for more than two years to erect a secure “firewall” to protect US user data from unauthorized access. He asserted that American data is stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel. However, despite his statements, not a single lawmaker offered support for TikTok. Chew’s responses on China were seen as evasive, and concerns persisted regarding the app’s influence on US children.

Content Controversies

Lawmakers also accused TikTok of promoting harmful content among children, including eating disorders, illegal drug sales, and sexual exploitation. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, expressed concern that TikTok prioritized profits over minimizing harm to kids. Chew countered that the issues were complex and not unique to TikTok.

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TikTok claims to have invested over $1.5 billion in data security under the initiative “Project Texas.” The project currently employs nearly 1,500 full-time staff and collaborates with Oracle Corp to store TikTok’s US user data. However, critics were unimpressed by the lack of new privacy safeguarding measures announced during the hearing.

Chew, originally from Singapore, made it clear from the start that TikTok does not promote or remove content at the Chinese government’s request. He assured lawmakers that the app rigorously screens content that could be harmful to children.

Lawmakers Taking Action

The hearing leaves lawmakers contemplating their next moves and the possible enactment of legislation to empower the Biden administration with legal authority to ban TikTok. A bipartisan group of 20 US senators, comprising 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, have thrown their support behind legislation that would provide the administration with a pathway to ban the app.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been further exacerbated by TikTok’s fate. Last week, TikTok revealed that the Biden administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face potential prohibition. When questioned about potential divestiture, Chew asserted that the issue was not about ownership. He suggested that moving data to US storage centers could address US concerns. However, China’s commerce ministry warned that forcing TikTok’s sale would significantly damage investor confidence.

Reactions and Concerns

Some lawmakers cited China’s statements to reject TikTok’s assertions of independence from the Chinese government. Representative Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance had ever spied on Americans at Beijing’s behest, to which Chew categorically responded, “No.” The hearing included discussions about reports suggesting a China-based team at ByteDance planned to use TikTok for monitoring specific US citizens’ locations. Chew avoided labeling it as spying, but before he could elaborate, he was interrupted by Representative Dunn, who described TikTok’s widespread use as “a cancer.”

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Shares of US social media companies that compete with TikTok experienced a rise, with Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms Inc, closing 2.2% higher, and Snap Inc rising 3.1%. Despite this, rumors that TikTok’s demise may be imminent have been deemed exaggerated by market experts.

Protecting Children

Democratic lawmaker Tony Cardenas accused Chew of dodging tough questions and skillfully avoiding evidence of TikTok’s impact on children’s mental health. Chew defended the company, mentioning investments in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit harmful content. Representative Diana DeGette expressed dissatisfaction with TikTok’s efforts to combat misinformation on the platform, stating that generalized statements about investments and concern were insufficient for both her and American parents.

During the hearing, Representative Gus Bilirakis presented the committee with a collection of TikTok videos that appeared to glorify self-harm and suicide or explicitly instructed viewers to end their lives. Bilirakis asserted that TikTok’s technology was contributing to loss of life and emphasized the urgency of protecting children from big tech companies that manipulate and exploit them.

Implications and International Response

The TikTok congressional hearing drew significant attention, not only in the US but also in China, where the news posts amassed millions of views on microblogging site Weibo. Many users expressed sympathy for Shou and criticized the perceived hostility from the US. Hu Xijin, a former editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid Global Times, commented on Twitter that although the US was effectively robbing TikTok, they were paradoxically following the hearing process.

In response to the US’s actions, the Chinese foreign ministry, during a regular news briefing, asserted that it had never compelled companies to collect or provide data to the Chinese government in violation of local laws. They accused the US of presuming TikTok’s guilt and unfairly suppressing the company. As of now, ByteDance has not provided a comment on the matter.

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