TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced a bipartisan grilling on Thursday as he appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to address lawmakers’ concerns about the video sharing app, which has 150 million active users in the US. Of particular concern to the committee was the company’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, and its suspected ties to the Chinese government.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values, values for freedom, human rights, and innovation," committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington, said in her opening statement. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned."
There are currently three bills in Congress that could affect American access to TikTok; two would legislate an outright ban of the platform, while the other would give the government the power to ban any technologies that are deemed a national security risk. The Biden administration reportedly has demanded that ByteDance sell TikTok, threatening a total ban on the app if the China-based company fails to comply. On Thursday, a Chinese commerce ministry spokesperson said that the government would oppose a forced sale.
During the five-hour hearing, the Singapore-born Chew, 40, emphasized that there has never been any evidence of the Chinese government accessing TikTok user data. He said that countries that have banned the app on government devices have done so based on “hypothetical and theoretical risks.” Last month, both the US and Canada issued orders banning the use of TikTok on government-issued mobile devices.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew declared in his written statement.
However, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed doubts about this claim, and many committee members jokingly thanked the TikTok CEO for inspiring bipartisanship. “You have unified Republicans and Democrats and, if only for a day, we’re actually unified because we have serious concerns,” said Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican from Texas.
Chew’s go-to answer when questioned about data privacy was Project Texas, the platform’s ongoing operation to move information about its American users to US-based servers. The TikTok CEO said that no China-based employees would have access to American user data once the project was completed, but committee members questioned whether this internal firewall would eliminate their security concerns.
"What you’re saying about Project Texas just doesn’t pass the smell test," said Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat from Minnesota. "My constituents are concerned that TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party are controlling their data and seeing our own vulnerabilities. … What you’re doing down in Texas is all well and good, but it is not enough to be convinced that our privacy is not at risk."
As BuzzFeed News exclusively reported last year, China-based ByteDance employees accessed nonpublic US TikTok user data on several occasions between September 2021 and January 2022. In December, ByteDance said in a statement that an internal investigation revealed that personal TikTok user data of the BuzzFeed News reporter who broke the story — and several other journalists who cover TikTok — had been accessed without authorization by ByteDance employees who were then fired.
When asked by Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican from Florida, during the hearing if ByteDance had ever spied on American citizens, Chew responded, “I don’t think that ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.”
As the TikTok CEO noted throughout the hearing, many of the issues raised by lawmakers were not unique to TikTok as a platform but rather ongoing problems all social media companies are trying to combat (such as moderation complications and the platform’s impact on mental health, particularly of young people).
Shortly before the end of the hearing, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, voiced his support for legislation banning TikTok. “I think you see a bipartisan concern here with what's happening on TikTok, especially what's happening to the data for Americans,” he told CNN.
In a joint statement issued following the hearing, seantors Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, expressed their continued concerns about the platform. (The two lawmakers are the sponsors of the RESTRICT Act, one of the bills addressing TikTok national security concerns.) “Under [People's Republic of China] law, all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so,” they said.
“Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns,” the statement continued. “It is vital for Congress to establish a process to review and mitigate the harms posed by foreign technology products that come from places like China and Russia. We are encouraged by the quick momentum and strong bipartisan support for our legislation and expect that it will only grow following today’s testimony.”