U.S. lawmakers on Thursday battered TikTok‘s CEO about potential Chinese influence over the platform and said its short videos were damaging children’s mental health, reflecting bipartisan concerns about the app’s power over Americans.
CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress did little to assuage U.S. worries over TikTok‘s China-based parent company ByteDance and added fresh momentum to lawmakers’ calls to ban the platform nationwide.
Over five hours of testimony, Chew repeatedly denied the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party and argued the platform was doing everything to ensure safety for its 150 million American users.
Chew said TikTok for more than two years has been “building what amounts to a firewall to seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access. The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” Chew said.
But not a single lawmaker offered support for TikTok, as they deemed Chew’s answers on China evasive.
When asked directly, Chew admitted that his direct manger is the CEO of ByteDance which has deep ties with the Chinese government. When asked whether ByteDance spies on the American people, Chew diverted saying, “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”
On multiple occasions, he denied to directly answer questions on whether or not ByteDance employees had direct access to American data.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew once again doesn't deny its Chinese parent company ByteDance can, in fact, access the private data of its American users pic.twitter.com/CJzLqnlFOJ
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) March 23, 2023
Many also expressed concerns over the amount of influence the app has over U.S. children.
At one point in the hearing, he was grilled on how many children have died due to dangerous challenges posted on the app.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew can't say how many children have died because of dangerous "challenges" on TikTok. pic.twitter.com/oZurG7yQNA
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) March 23, 2023
Others accused TikTok of promoting content that encourages eating disorders among children, illegal drug sales, violence, suicide, and sexual exploitation.
“TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids, but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, at the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee hearing.
Chew responded to many pointed questions by saying the issues were “complex” and not unique to TikTok.
The company says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on data security efforts under the name “Project Texas” which currently has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle Corp to store TikTok‘s U.S. user data.
But critics were not appeased as the company failed to announce any new efforts to safeguard privacy.
Chew, who began his testimony by referring to his Singaporean roots, said: “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government.”
It is not clear how lawmakers will proceed after the hearing or how quickly they might move to pass legislation to strengthen the Biden administration’s legal powers to ban TikTok.
‘NOT ABOUT THE OWNERSHIP’
Some 20 U.S. senators – 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans – have backed bipartisan legislation giving President Joe Biden’s administration a path to ban TikTok, and the app’s fate has added a new element to tensions between Washington and Beijing.
TikTok last week said the Biden administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.
When asked about a potential divestiture, Chew said the issue was “not about the ownership” and argued U.S. concerns could be addressed by moving data to its U.S. storage centers.
China’s commerce ministry said forcing TikTok‘s sale “will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States,” and that China would oppose any sale.
Shares of U.S. social media companies that compete with TikTok for advertising rose on Thursday, with Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc closing 2.2% higher and Snap Inc up 3.1%.
“SNAP and META are up on idea that the CEO didn’t do well and TikTok may be banned,” said Thomas Hayes, chairman and managing member of Great Hill Capital. “I think the rumors of TikTok‘s demise may be greatly exaggerated.”
‘SAVE OUR CHILDREN’
Democratic lawmaker Tony Cardenas said Chew was a “good dancer with words” and accused him of avoiding tough questions on evidence that the app has harmed children’s mental health.
Chew said the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit such content.
Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat, said TikTok‘s efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform were not working.
“You gave me only generalized statements that you’re investing, that you’re concerned, that you’re doing work. That’s not enough for me. That’s not enough for the parents of America,” DeGette said.
Representative Gus Bilirakis showed the committee a collection of short TikTok videos that appeared to glorify self-harm and suicide, or outright tell viewers to kill themselves.
“Your technology is literally leading to death,” Bilirakis said. “We must save our children from big tech companies like yours, who continue to abuse and manipulate them for your own gain.”
On Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry at a regular news briefing said it had never asked companies to collect or provide data from abroad to the Chinese government in a way that violated local laws, and that the U.S. was presuming TikTok‘s guilt and “unreasonably suppressing” the company.
ByteDance did not reply to a request for comment.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters. Additions and edits for FISM News by Michael Cardinal