TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi grilled by US lawmakers over 'dangerous' content amid calls for app to be banned

·6 min read

TikTok's chief executive weathered blistering questioning during a packed Congressional hearing on Thursday as US lawmakers grilled him on the app's alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party, danger to teenagers and risk to American national security and data privacy.

Chew told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington that his hugely successful company was private, did not allow any government - including China - to manipulate its user data and was putting in place a US$1.5 billion programme to safeguard US data and monitor content.

But the hostile tone was set by the committee chairwoman before Chew uttered his first word and continued unabated.

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"TikTok surveils us all, and the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole," Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington state, said in her opening statement. "Your platform should be banned. I expect today you will say anything to avoid this outcome. ... We're not buying it."

Chew repeatedly sought to convince the wary lawmakers of efforts by TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, to address their concerns.

These include its "Texas Project", a plan to house US data within a walled-off company jointly overseen by US software provider Oracle, and accelerated efforts to monitor and delete posts that fuel teen suicide, political violence and other objectionable content aided by a team of 44,000 screeners worldwide.

"Many of those measures are firsts for the social media industry," said Chew, 40, who is from Singapore. "We believe we are the only the only company that offers this level of transparency."

But Chew's assurances appeared to fall largely on deaf ears. His case was dealt a further blow when Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican from Florida, pulled up a TikTok video that had been online for 41 days showing a gun firing repeatedly, with messaging specifically targeting Rodgers, the committee chairwoman.

"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?" asked Cammack.

"You've used the word transparency over a half a dozen times in your opening testimony and subsequently again in your answers to my colleagues," she said. "Yet the interesting thing to me is that ByteDance, your parent company, has gone out of their way to hide and airbrush corporate structure ties to the CCP."

During a short break, Chew ordered the video taken down and pledged to redouble the company's vigilance.

TikTok has faced growing headwind since it entered the US market in 2018 and quickly outpaced rivals. The company's US advertising revenue was US$11 billion in 2022, a 200 per cent increase over 2021, according to estimates by the eMarketer research firm.

US Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, during the hearing in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Bloomberg alt=US Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, during the hearing in Washington on Thursday. Photo: Bloomberg>

The federal government and more than two dozen US states have banned government employees from using TikTok on official work devices, as have other state agencies in Europe and Canada. On Thursday, Britain became the latest, forbidding its use on all parliamentary devices.

Last week, the Biden administration threatened to force the app's Chinese shareholders to sell to US owners or face a possible ban of all US users, reinforced on Thursday when Secretary of State Antony Blinken called TikTok a national security threat that "should be ended one way or another".

Beijing has responded by accusing Washington of "abusing state power" and "suppressing related businesses". China's commerce ministry said on Thursday that forcing TikTok to change ownership "will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States", adding that China would oppose any sale.

Lawmakers said this was further evidence of China's control over the company and its store of personal data.

In recent weeks, TikTok has honed a series of arguments in the fight over its existence, including the "joy", business opportunities and global sharing enjoyed by its 1 billion users worldwide; the fundamental threat to US justice and fairness that a wider ban would embody; and company dedication to data protection and national security.

Chew's bid to get his points across, delivered in measured tones, was challenged repeatedly by a stream of interruptions, scepticism, pointed reminders that making false statements to Congress was a federal crime and repeated demands to "just answer yes or no".

This appeared to vindicate his decision to release written testimony a day earlier, given constraints he faced at Thursday's hearing. "Congressman, you have given me no time to answer your questions," he said more than once. "I reject the characterisations."

Despite recent threats, the US could have trouble carrying out a general ban.

Chew takes questions from Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican of Florida.. Photo: Getty Images via AFP alt=Chew takes questions from Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican of Florida.. Photo: Getty Images via AFP>

An effort by the Trump administration to bar TikTok in 2020 foundered, and any new effort could face similar legal challenges.

At issue are the relatively obscure Berman amendments, which date back to 1988 and were designed to ensure that presidents were unable to ban information and their distributors from then Cold War adversaries.

Further safeguards were added, including the expansion of First Amendment press freedoms to overseas digital media.

Some of the legal impediments could be eased but not eliminated if a bipartisan bill is passed, expanding White House authority to enact restrictions. Introduced in the Senate earlier this month, its authors say they have lined up 20 supporters, although it faces a tougher road in the House.

Even so, lawmakers and administration officials who favour the ban are walking a fine line as they try to curtail the app without setting a precedent that overseas governments could use to ban or seriously restrict Facebook, Twitter and other US-based social media platforms.

Thursday's hearing came on a busy day in Congress, as a slew of other committees heard China-focused testimony on trade, security, technology, fentanyl, great power competition and human rights.

Fuelling the lawmakers is their reading of an increasingly wary electorate as US-China relations have plummeted.

A Pew survey late last year found that 82 per cent of US respondents expressed an "unfavourable opinion" of China, up from 79 per cent in 2020. The wariness was tied to China's military, human rights and pandemic transparency policies.

Much of the frustration directed at TikTok on Thursday touched on broader legislative concerns as tech companies have grown huge and powerful and played an increasing role in election fraud, illegal drug distribution, stalking and other social issues. But its size and Chinese ownership proved a powerful magnet for criticism.

"This is not a problem unique to TikTok," said Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado.

"But TikTok has 150 million users in the United States. And so I think you'll agree that TikTok has a particular responsibility."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.