TikTok CEO finds no allies among U.S. lawmakers in tense Congress grilling

The CEO of TikTok made a high-profile appearance on Thursday before a U.S. congressional committee, where he faced a grilling on data security and user safety amid a recent flurry of actions from Western governments to curtail use of the app.

Shou Zi Chew appeared as a ban or sale to U.S. company has been contemplated

A person in a suit speaks into a mic while seated.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during a hearing of the U.S. House energy and commerce committee on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

U.S. lawmakers grilled the CEO of TikTok over data security and harmful content on Thursday, responding skeptically during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the hugely popular video-sharing app prioritizes user safety and should not be banned.

Shou Zi Chew's rare public appearance came at a crucial time for the company, which has 150 million American users but is under increasing pressure from U.S. officials. TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, have been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology.

In a bipartisan effort to rein in the power of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed Chew on a host of topics, including TikTok's content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from Beijing, and its spying on journalists.

"Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security," Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House energy and commerce committee, said in her opening statement.

Chew, a 40-year-old Singapore native, told the committee that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied that it's a national security risk. He reiterated the company's plan to protect U.S. user data by storing it on servers maintained and owned by the software giant Oracle.

"Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country," Chew said.

TikTok has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favourable to the country's Communist leaders.

In 2019, the Guardian newspaper reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square — site of a protest and massacre in 1989 — and images unfavourable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.

ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees last summer who accessed data on two journalists and people connected to them while attempting to uncover the source of a leaked report about the company.

The download page for the TikTok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone.
The download page for the TikTok app is displayed on a phone in August 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For its part, TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying 60 per cent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group. Responding to a Wall Street Journal report, China said it would oppose any U.S. attempts to force ByteDance to sell the app.

Chew pushed back against the idea that TikTok's ownership was an issue.

"Trust is about actions we take," he said. "Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns."

Dramatic videos shown at hearing

In one of the most dramatic moments, Republican Rep. Kat Cammack played a TikTok video that showed a shooting gun with a caption that included the House committee holding the hearing, with the exact date before it was formally announced.

"You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can't even protect the people in this room," Cammack said.

TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said the company on Thursday removed the violent video aimed at the committee and banned the account that posted it.

A person gestures at and questions another person during a hearing.
Republican Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida, right, questions Chew during the House energy and commerce committee hearing on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

As the energy and commerce committee questioned Chew, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was questioned about the threat TikTok poses at a separate but simultaneous committee hearing. Asked by Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, if the platform is a security threat to the United States, Blinken said: "I believe it is."

"Shouldn't a threat to United States security be banned?" Buck asked.

"It should be ended one way or another. But there are different ways of doing that," Blinken responded.

A seated person in a suit speaks into a microphone as people seated behind him look on.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a separate hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Committee members also showed a host of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform's Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same controversial and potentially dangerous content as the American product.

Chew responded that it depends on the laws of the country where the app is operating. He said the company has about 40,000 moderators who track harmful content and an algorithm that flags material.

Wealth management firm Wedbush described the hearing as a "disaster" for TikTok that made a ban more likely if the social media platform doesn't separate from its Chinese parent.

Emile El Nems, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service, said a ban would benefit TikTok rivals YouTube, Instagram and Snap, "likely resulting in higher revenue share of the total advertising wallet."

Unclear how a ban would work

A U.S. ban on an app would be unprecedented, and it's unclear how the government would go about enforcing it.

Experts say officials could try to force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. The U.S. could also block access to TikTok's infrastructure and data, seize its domain names or force internet service providers to filter TikTok data traffic, said Ahmed Ghappour, a criminal law and computer security expert who teaches at Boston University's school of law.

To avoid a ban, TikTok has been trying to sell officials on a $1.5 billion US plan to route all U.S. user data to domestic servers owned and maintained by software giant Oracle.

Under the project, access to U.S. data is managed by U.S. employees through a separate entity called TikTok U.S. Data Security, which is run independently of ByteDance and monitored by outside observers.

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As of October, all new U.S. user data was being stored inside the country. The company started deleting all historic U.S. user data from non-Oracle servers this month, in a process expected to be completed this year, Chew said.

Congress, the White House, U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states have already banned the use of the app from official devices.

But wiping away all the data tracking associated with the platform might prove difficult. In a report released this month, the cybersecurity company Feroot said so-called tracking pixels from ByteDance, which collect user information, were found on 30 U.S state websites, including some where the app has been banned.

Other countries, including Denmark, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, along with the European Union, have already banned TikTok from government-issued devices.

Possible risks of ban

A complete TikTok ban in the U.S. would risk political and popular backlash.

The company sent dozens of popular TikTokkers to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers to preserve the platform.

WATCH | TikTok supporters, detractors gather in Washington: 

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And a dozen civil rights and free speech organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and PEN America, have signed a letter opposing a wholesale TikTok ban, arguing it would set a "dangerous precedent for the restriction of speech."

David Kennedy, a former U.S. government intelligence officer who runs the cybersecurity company TrustedSec, said restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones because they might contain sensitive information seems prudent, but a nationwide ban might be too extreme.

"We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they going to start banning us now?" Kennedy said. "It could escalate very quickly."