TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew fails to persuade US Congress app is not a threat

Legislators seem keen to ban popular app they consider to be threat to national security

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew at an hours-long hearing before US Congress on Thursday. AP
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TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew's four-hour testimony before Congress on Thursday did little to convince US legislators that the app is not connected to the Chinese government.

Instead, it seemed to add further momentum to a possible nationwide ban.

Mr Chew faced a barrage of questions from a group of hostile politicians who sit on the House energy and commerce committee, who grew more incredulous as the TikTok boss wavered under their questioning.

At one point during the marathon session, Mr Chew was asked if ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, has “spied on American citizens”.

“I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it,” he said.

He had earlier conceded that “there is still some data we need to delete”, which is still accessible to TikTok's staff in China, but tried to separate TikTok and its parent company from Beijing.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Mr Chew said in his prepared opening remarks.

But he was hit with questions from an unconvinced group of congressional representatives.

There are already bills floating in Congress — including one endorsed by the White House — that would ban the app used by 150 million Americans.

President Joe Biden's administration also recently delivered TikTok an ultimatum, saying it could be banned if its Chinese owners did not sell their stake in the company.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values — values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” said the committee's chairwoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

She said China could use the app “as a tool to manipulate America as a whole”.

“TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned,” Ms McMorris Rodgers said.

TikTok chief faces US Congress as ban of app looms

TikTok chief faces US Congress as ban of app looms

Mr Chew said the app did not “promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government” and that the company was committed to not being manipulated by any government.

Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the panel, said commitments “to achieve those goals” had not been presented during Mr Chew's testimony.

“You're going to continue to gather data, you're going to continue to sell data … and continue to be under the aegis of the [Chinese] Communist Party,” Mr Pallone said.

Mr Chew outlined commitments that TikTok intends to make for users, including prioritising user safety, firewalling US data from unauthorised foreign access, ensuring the app is a platform for free expression and granting access to independent monitors.

In the days before the hearing, TikTok and Mr Chew have sought to allay concerns over security and safety on the platform.

He posted a video on the app explaining how it benefits small businesses.

But some in Congress oppose a ban on the app.

Representative Kat Cammack of Florida questions TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew on the company's security practices and its effects on children. AP

“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” asked Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman at a news conference on Wednesday.

“Let's do the right thing here — comprehensive social media reform as it relates to privacy and security.”

Meanwhile, TikTok revamped its community guidelines and published a “Myth v Fact” sheet countering claims that its parent company is owned by China, Punchbowl News reported.

TikTok has also been trying to avoid a ban by promoting Project Texas, a $1.5 billion plan in which American users' data would be stored by the TikTok US Data Security Committee, independent of ByteDance.

Ms McMorris Rodgers dismissed Project Texas as a marketing scheme.

TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life,” she said.

The app has already been banned on federal government devices for members of Congress and the military. Nearly half of all US states have also banned the app on government devices.

Other western governments, including the EU, Canada and New Zealand, have already banned TikTok. The UK has also announced a ban on the app on government devices.

Congress seeks assurances on safety for under-18s

Concerns over minors' use of the app was also widely expressed during Thursday's hearing, with many representatives rejecting Mr Chew's arguments of TikTok's safety.

“We aren’t buying it,” Ms McMorris Rodgers said.

Republican Representative Bob Latta of Ohio spoke of a 10-year-old girl who died while taking part in a “blackout challenge”, a social media trend that encouraged users to hold their breath until they passed out.

“Unfortunately, this is one of the many devastating examples of children losing their lives because of content promoted by TikTok,” Mr Latta said.

Mr Chew said during the hearing that TikTok bars dangerous content from being available to minors.

TikTok this month announced new parental controls that allow adults to limit screen time, among other measures.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 7:18 AM