Bipartisan support to ban the app has grown over concerns of Chinese government influence and spread of ‘harmful content’.
The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, is squaring off with United States legislators in his first public congressional hearing over the app’s alleged ties to the Chinese government.
The hearing on Thursday is being held as support in Washington has grown for banning the Chinese-owned app over national security concerns. The administration of President Joe Biden reportedly has called on TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the app or lose the ability to operate in the US.
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Legislators have alleged that US user data could easily be shared with the Chinese government, the app could be a disinformation and propaganda platform for Beijing and TikTok does not adequately protect children from harm. China has countered that the US is spreading disinformation and suppressing users.
About 150 million US residents are among TikTok’s one billion monthly global users, according to the company. That is nearly half the country’s population.
“The Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” said House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation,” she said at the opening of the hearing. “Your platform should be banned”.
Underscoring Washington’s bipartisan scepticism towards the app, Representative Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the committee, accused TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, of being indistinct from the Chinese government.
“Today we intend to bring more transparency to TikTok, which is controlled by its Beijing Communist Party parent company ByteDance,” he said.
“While TikTok videos provide a new fun way for people to express their creativity and enjoy the videos of others, the platform also threatens the health, privacy and security of the American people,” he said.
In his opening statements, Chew described the app as “a place where people can be creative and curious”.
He said he sought to dispel “a few misconceptions” about ByteDance, which he said “is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government”.
Chew added that TikTok is headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles and denied influence or intervention from the Chinese government. He also said TikTok had not shared data with Beijing.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialise any of these concerns,” he said. “We have addressed them with real action.”
Chew said the initiative is building “what amounts to a firewall that seals off protected user data from unauthorised foreign access”, adding that pre-existing user data was in the process of being deleted from servers in the US and Singapore.
Meanwhile, to prevent the company’s algorithms from pushing harmful content, misinformation or videos that are not age appropriate, he said TikTok will use “third-party validators” to review source code and algorithms while providing “access to researchers, which helps them study and monitor our content ecosystem”.
“We believe we are the only company that offers this level of transparency,” he said.
Chew faced a day of hard questioning with many legislators referencing a Chinese national intelligence law that could compel Chinese companies to give data to the government if Beijing deems it relevant for national security.
Many legislators also seized on a Wall Street Journal report published on Thursday in which a spokesperson for the Commerce Ministry said any sale of TikTok would need to be approved by the Chinese government. The legislators called the report further evidence that ByteDance and the Chinese government were deeply intertwined.
“I have zero confidence in your assertion that ByteDance and TikTok are not beholden to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party],” Rodgers told Chew, citing The Wall Street Journal report.
In another heated moment, Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican, pushed back on Chew’s statement that TikTok proactively takes down “harmful comment”, playing a video that showed a gun and threatened the committee hearing. She said it had been on the app since February 10.
“Your own community guidelines state that you have a firm stance against enabling violence on or off TikTok,” she said. “You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data privacy and security of 150 million Americans when you can’t even protect the people in this room?”
The post was subsequently removed during the hearing.
“I think that is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are,” Cammack said.
Despite the heated line of questioning during Thursday’s hearing, not all US legislators have supported targeting the company.
In a news conference on Wednesday night, Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat, asked: “Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?”
“Instead of banning TikTok, we need comprehensive legislation to ensure social media users’ data is safe and secure,” he said.
Dozens of TikTok creators also converged on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, lobbying in favour of the platform.
Critics of the move to ban TikTok have pointed to a lack of evidence that the app has been used to harm US national security.