TikTok’s chief executive faced pointed questions about the app’s relationship with its Chinese parent company in his debut appearance before US Congress, where combative lawmakers made it clear they don’t accept his promise to keep users and their data safe.
Shou Chew’s appearance on Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee comes as both Congress and the Biden administration are exploring how to force TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, to sell its shares of the unit or face a ban in the US.
“You are here because the American people need to hear the truth about the threat TikTok poses to mental health and national security,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s chair and a Washington Republican, said. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
The room was overflowing on Thursday with TikTokers who credit the app with giving them a voice or growing their small business.
But Ms McMorris Rodgers said the app’s wide popularity – used by 150 million Americans – is precisely why it poses such a threat. She called on Mr Chew to tell the truth about TikTok, but suggested that it will be hard for him to win over his critics.
“We aren’t buying it,” Ms McMorris Rodgers said of TikTok’s arguments of why the service is safe.
Mr Chew came prepared for all the accusations he would hear from lawmakers. In his opening statement he tried to assure the committee that TikTok operates independently from ByteDance.
“We believe we are the only company – the only company – that applies this level of transparency,” Mr Chew said emphatically about the privacy measures the company has put in place.
The centerpiece of Mr Chew’s offering to quell concerns about Chinese influence – a $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion) investment in US-based data security measures – has already been rejected by US government officials, who are demanding that ByteDance sell its shares or face a US ban, according to people familiar with the national security review of the app.
Mr Chew, in his prepared remarks, called those reports “speculation” and said “conversations with the government are ongoing”, and TikTok’s effort to isolate and protect US user data “has continued unabated”.
New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said while he supports comprehensive data-privacy legislation, such as the Bill he sponsored with Ms McMorris Rodgers last year, that doesn’t let TikTok off the hook. He said he has “wide concerns” not just about TikTok, but about all social media platforms.
Mr Chew also compared the steps TikTok is taking – to protect both data security and the safety of young users – to the practices of other big tech companies. He described the measures TikTok takes to verify the age of its users and enforce restrictions for children and teens as industry-leading.
But his challenge on Thursday is to convince people who simply don’t believe him.
“Complete honesty is the standard and the law you are held to in this committee,” Ms McMorris Rodgers said. – Bloomberg