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Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee interrogated the chief executive of TikTok on alleged national security risks posed by the immensely popular video-sharing app, while the CEO stressed that data privacy and security issues are prevalent across all of Big Tech and that the company doesn’t share information with the Chinese government.
During the more than five-hour hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on a wide range of issues, including the company’s ties to China, the types of information the app collects, the security of user data, content moderation and misinformation. He struggled to alleviate concerns that the company poses a national security risk because it’s owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, escalating calls for banning the app or a forced sale to an American company. The chief executive appeared frustrated as many of the politicians attempted to get him to answer “yes” or “no” to several questions, to which he repeatedly replied that the answers are more technical and complicated than they appear.
Lawmakers have offered no evidence that TikTok has provided American user data to the Chinese government or that it’s been directed to influence the content users see on the platform.
Coming into the hearing, TikTok stressed the extraordinary degree to which the app is integrated into American culture. The company disclosed on Tuesday that it has roughly 150 million American monthly active users, up from 100 million a year ago.
That play backfired as committee members grilled Chew on alleged national security risks TikTok poses because of its significant American user base.
Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, asked Chew whether employees of ByteDance are subject to a Chinese national intelligence law that requires any organization or citizen to cooperate with state intelligence work.
“In the past, yes, but,” Chew responded until he was cut off. In response to a follow-up question on whether ByteDance employees in China have access to U.S. user data, he said, “This is a complex topic.”
The chief executive repeatedly emphasized a partnership with Oracle to move its data on users stored on foreign servers to Texas, essentially firewalling the data the Chinese government could collect. The initiative, called Project Texas, includes audits of its algorithms and creating a subsidiary called TikTok U.S. Data Security to oversee content moderation policies and approve editorial decisions. American employees will report to an independent board of directors.
“This goes farther than what any other company in our industry has done,” Chew said in an opening statement. “We believe we’re the only company that offers this level of transparency.”
In one particularly sharp line of questioning, Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Florida, asked if ByteDance has spied on American citizens, in a nod to a confirmed report that the company used TikTok to monitor journalists’ physical location using their IP addresses.
“I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it,” Chew answered.
There’s currently no national data privacy law that prohibits the collection of vast amounts of user data. Advocating for passage of such a measure, Chew stressed that TikTok’s competitors engage in the same data-collection practices.
“American social media companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security,” he said. “I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”
Chew continued in response to another question, “Potential security, privacy and content manipulation concerns about TikTok are really not unique to us. The same issues apply to other companies. We believe what’s needed are clear, transparent rules that apply to all tech companies. Ownership is not at the core of these concerns.”
Several lawmakers agreed on the need for a national data privacy law. Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-California, said, “Social media companies — and TikTok is not unique in this — gather a tremendous amount of user data and use powerful AI tools to make eerily accurate predictions of human behavior and seek to manipulate that behavior. It’s not just TikTok. It’s all social media companies doing this.”
As a private company, 60 percent of TikTok is owned by global institutional investors, 20 percent by its founders and 20 percent by employees. It has five board members, three of whom are American.
Chinese officials on Thursday said they’d oppose a forced sale of TikTok because it’d involve the export of technology that has to be approved by the government.
Chew’s first appearance before Congress came after TikTok acknowledged the Biden administration is demanding that its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the platform or potentially face a U.S. ban on the app. The app has already been banned on government devices, and more than 30 states have passed similar measures. There are several bills working their way through Congress that would take action against the app, from a forced sale to an outright ban.
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