TikTok is facing a raft of discontent in Washington — and Wednesday’s hearing was the first time the company’s CEO, Shou Chew, is addressing legislators publicly.
“There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform,” Chew said. “We know we have a responsibility to protect them.”
Chew testified Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee after years of government concern over its ownership and data management. Soon after TikTok arrived on U.S. shores, then-President Donald Trump attempted to have it banned because of parent company ByteDance China-based ownership. More recently, Congress has made multiple, bipartisan gestures at banning the app. Over thirty states have banned it on government devices.
The hearing was slated to focus on “TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” per a press release.
In his opening statement, Chew outlined commitments that he said the company could make to U.S. users: safeguarding teenagers, continuing to “firewall” U.S. data “from unauthorized foreign access,” not allowing the company’s content moderation or algorithm to be manipulated by a government, and not letting outside parties view its practices to ensure compliance.
This “goes further, by the way, than what any other company in our industry [has] done,” as far as privacy and transparency, Chew added.
TikTok became available in the U.S. in 2018. Chew told legislators Thursday that the company employs about 7,000 people in the U.S. He added that nearly five million U.S. businesses, mostly small, are on the platform.
TikTok users spend an average of 93 minutes a day on the app, per data from analytics firm, Sensor Tower, according to the New York Times.
Representatives grilled the CEO about issues from content related to mental health and eating disorders to TikTok’s relationship with parent company ByteDance and the Chinese government. Questions were also asked about TikTok’s financial details, such as Chew’s salary, which he declined to answer.
Last week, the Biden Administration told TikTok it would need to divest from ownership in China or face a possible ban, the company said. China on Thursday voiced its opposition to such a move.
The main concern is a law in China that forces companies to hand over user data to the government, but others are that the app could manipulate U.S. users.
TikTok offered a program called “Project Texas” in the way of national security assurances, which involves continuing to move its data on U.S. users to Oracle services by the end of the year. As a result, the company would not be required to share data with Beijing. Oracle is a U.S. company headquartered in Austin.
Chew further said in response to questions that after Project Texas’ was complete, no ByteDance employee would be able to access U.S. data. One representative, Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said she found that “preposterous.”
Chew also said in response to questions that he has seen “no evidence” that the Chinese government has viewed U.S. data.
According to leaked audio obtained by BuzzFeed News and reported in September 2021, one employee said in a TikTok meeting that “everything is seen in China.”
Chew also seemed to hint at Congress’s lack of success in passing comprehensive privacy legislation to regulate the industry at large in his opening statement.
“We believe what’s needed are clear, transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies,” he said in his opening statement.
House Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and ranking member Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) expressed strong sentiments about the company’s connections to the government in China and about big tech in general.
“Your platform should be banned,” Rodgers told Chew.
The hearing was still ongoing as of publication time.