TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today in a five-hour hearing in which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle asked piercing questions.
The committee’s questions and comments underscored lawmakers’ increasing hostility towards the popular Chinese-owned app. Members expressed serious concerns about TikTok’s safety and security, as well as its connections to the Chinese government.
Chew did not appear particularly successful at assuaging their concerns.
The testimony follows months the government scrutinizing TikTok. Lawmakers recently passed a resolution giving President Joe Biden power to ban the app and legislation allowing Biden to force a sale of the company.
The once quiet company responded by offering to exclusively house Americans’ data in the states and by going on a charm offensive in an attempt to make sure the door to its U.S. operations remains open.
Last year, TikTok introduced Project Texas, a multi-billion dollar proposal to bring and house U.S. user data in the states. The project was criticized by a former employee but would be a first-of-its-kind initiative if implemented.
Yesterday, TikTok sent influencers around Washington to meet with lawmakers in an effort to show the human side of the app and the effect a ban could have on the economy.
According to Pew Research, 67 percent of Americans aged 13-17 use TikTok. Nearly half of Americans aged 18-29 say they use TikTok.
In his written testimony, Chew said he’s committed to “an open and transparent relationship with Congress” and aimed to disprove what he called “misconceptions.”
Chew said that ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, is “not an agent of China or any other country” and has “never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government.”
“TikTok is a vibrant marketplace for a diverse group of more than 1 billion creators. As we fulfill our mission to inspire creativity and bring joy, we remain resolute in our commitment to safety and security, and we look forward to earning the trust of this committee and the American public,” he said.
“We also look forward to partnering with the committee on developing clear, consistent rules for the entire industry.”
Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) grilled Chew in her opening statement, claiming Americans “need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security.”
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values, values for freedom, human rights, and innovation,” she said. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”
Rodgers also claimed that “TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see, and exploit for future generations. A ban is only a short-term way to address TikTok, and a data privacy bill is the only way to stop TikTok from ever happening again in the United States.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) backed Rodgers in his opening remarks.
“Big tech has transformed the information superhighway into a super spreader of harmful content, invasive surveillance practices, and addictive and damaging design features. That is big tech’s most valuable commodity,” he said. “And by collecting far more user data than they need, big tech platforms can share and sell information to generate billions of dollars in revenue.”
Pallone added that, while the hearing was about TikTok, his concerns are more broadly about social media in general and privacy protection.
Lawmakers spent a lot of time asking about TikTok’s revenue and hierarchy and frequently conflated its data storage and usage policies.
In response to concerns about its data storage and privacy protections, Chew said Project Texas would not only move all U.S. data from its current storage facilities in Virginia and Singapore to Texas, but allow U.S. third parties and congressional oversight into its code and processes. He repeatedly said this is unheard of in the social media industry.
Lawmakers were dismayed by Chew’s inability to answer some questions, including about the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation on the platform.
Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tex.) accused Chew of “evasiveness” and implied that he didn’t answer their questions to their satisfaction.
“You were asked to come before this committee to testify about many things and a lot of us are worried about our kid’s personal data,” Veasey said.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) used the opportunity to claim that TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want to bring about “the demise of American power.”
“You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but it will be one day when you do care about it,” Crenshaw said. “And here’s the real problem, with data comes power. They can choose what you see and how you see it. They can make you believe things that are not true. They can encourage you to engage in behavior that will destroy your life.”
Throughout the hearing, Chew insisted that TikTok doesn’t take orders from the Chinese government and has never sold data to brokers or let any data be used by the government of China.
Lawmakers were not convinced.
“Your claims are hard to believe,” Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) said. “It’s no secret to us that TikTok is still under the thumb of [Chinese Communist Party] influence. And let’s be honest, TikTok is indoctrinating our children with divisive woke and pro-CCP propaganda all while threatening our national security.”
Lawmakers also brought up several incidents involving TikTok that resulted in deaths, including that of Chase Nasca, a 16-year-old who stepped in front of a moving train. His parents, who were at the hearing, are suing TikTok. They claim TikTok’s algorithm fed Nasca suicidal content that prompted him to take his life.
Another lawmaker mentioned research that found TikTok collects keystroke data on users.
Chew insisted that the practice was standard.
“We do not engage in keystroke logging to monitor what the user said. [It] is to identify bots, for security purposes. And this is a standard industry practice,” he said.
The committee frequently criticized Chew’s inability to answer complex questions with a yes or no answer. They also repeatedly asked him about risks associated with using TikTok and recent government’s decisions to ban the app from state-owned devices.
“I think a lot of risks that have been pointed out are hypothetical and theoretical risks. I have not seen any evidence, and I’m eagerly awaiting discussions where we can talk about evidence, and we then can address the concerns that are being raised,” Chew responded.
At one point, Chew said that the app would “not be manipulated by any government.”
He also pushed back on the suggestion that TikTok should be categorized as a publisher under Section 230. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives platforms broad immunity for content posted by users.
Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) alluded to the lawsuit parents of a young woman killed by an Islamic extremist filed against YouTube parent company Google for allegedly recommending ISIS videos via its algorithm. That case, one of the most significant challenges to Section 230 immunity, is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Whatever the motivation, I’m trying to point out that as you move from a publisher by you manipulating this data with algorithms, that you step out from the protections as Section 230,” Curtis said.
Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) brought up the death of Nylah Anderson, a 10-year-old who died after trying the “Blackout Challenge.” Latta said Section 230 should not protect TikTok in that situation, given the harm it has caused for some young children.
“Unfortunately, this is one of the many devastating examples of children losing their lives because of content promoted by TikTok,” he said. “Section 230 was never intended to shield companies like yours from amplifying dangerous and life-threatening content to children.”
During the hearing, TikTokers posted about their frustration over lawmakers’ lack of social media literacy.
TikToker @_danyul_ said the hearing proves that Congress has already decided to ban TikTok.
@_danyul_ #greenscreen sorry im not very well spoken but i just had to get it off my chest… tiktok please dont take this down! #tiktokban #fyp #congress ♬ original sound – olaniyi
“These people already have their mind made up,” he said. “They’re basically asking him questions to justify banning this app.”
Some lawmakers have called for an outright ban of the Chinese-owned app, but it’s unclear how that would play out. TikTok could just be stripped from app stores, allowing users who already have it on their phones to continue to use it—though the app may look drastically different than it does now.
The U.S. could also take the same approach as India, which barred its telecommunications services from servicing the app in 2020.
Although much remains unknown, the future of TikTok in the U.S. is murky at best.
Lawmakers have been sounding alarms about the app with increasing urgency since 2020. That attempt to force a sale of the company ultimately fizzled out.
Now, however, TikTok’s time might be up.