SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

TikTok CEO: 5 takeaways from his first appearance before Congress

Mar 23, 2023, 3:30 PM | Updated: 6:21 pm

In his first appearance before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers ...

House lawmakers grill TikTok CEO Shou Chew about data security. (Pool photograph, via CNN)

(Pool photograph, via CNN)

Originally Published: 23 MAR 23 07:30 ET
Updated: 23 MAR 23 16:16 ET

(CNN) — In his first appearance before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers who expressed deep skepticism about his company’s attempts to protect US user data and ease concerns about its ties to China.

The hearing, which lasted for more than five hours, kicked off with calls from a lawmaker to ban the app in the United States and remained combative throughout. It offered a vivid display of the bipartisan push to crack down on the popular short-form video app and the company’s uphill battle to improve relations with Washington.

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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened Thursday’s hearing by telling Shou: “Your platform should be banned.”

“I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome,” she continued. “We aren’t buying it. In fact, when you celebrate the 150 million American users on TikTok, it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act. That is 150 million Americans that the [Chinese Communist Party] can collect sensitive information on.”

Chew, who until recently kept a low profile compared to other tech CEOs, used his testimony to stress TikTok’s independence from China and play up its US ties. “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China, we’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today,” he said in his opening remarks.

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“Still, we have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem,” Chew said. “Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action.”

Chew’s moment in the hot seat comes as some lawmakers are renewing calls for the app to be banned in the United States due to perceived national security concerns because of its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. TikTok acknowledged to CNN last week that federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app. A number of countries, including the US, have already instituted a ban of the app on government devices due to the security concerns.

TikTok doesn’t operate in China. But since the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, the theory goes that ByteDance, and thus indirectly, TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data.

With his appearance, Chew may have hoped to reassure Americans and temper the heated rhetoric in Washington about the app — but the hours-long hearing showed just how challenging a task that might be.

“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told CNN in a statement after the hearing wrapped. “But, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway.”

Washington has already made up its mind about TikTok

Much of Chew’s attempts to stress that his company is not an arm of the Chinese government appeared to fall on deaf ears. Numerous members of Congress interrupted the chief executive’s testimony to say they simply don’t believe him.

“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Rep. McMorris Rodgers.

In an exchange with Rep. Anna Eshoo, Chew talked up TikTok’s ongoing efforts to protect US user data and said he has “seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it.”

“I find that actually preposterous,” Eshoo fired back.

“I have looked in — and I have seen no evidence of this happening,” Chew responded. “Our commitment is to move their data into the United States, to be stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel. So the risk would be similar to any government going to an American company, asking for data.”

“I don’t believe that TikTok — that you have said or done anything to convince us,” Eshoo said.

Perhaps no exchange summed up Thursday’s hearing like a moment following Rep. Kat Cammack’s lengthy critique of TikTok’s content moderation and links to China.

“Can I respond, Chair?” Chew asked McMorris Rodgers after Cammack’s time was up.

McMorris Rodgers considered Chew for a brief moment.

“No. We’re going to move on,” she said.

TikTok CEO stresses its practices are no different than US tech giants

As lawmakers doubled down on their questions about TikTok’s data collection practices, Chew also emphasized that the data TikTok collects is data “that’s frequently collected by many other companies in our industry.”

“We are committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect,” Chew said. “I don’t believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry.”

Independent researchers have backed Chew’s assertions. In 2020, The Washington Post worked with a privacy researcher to look under the hood at TikTok, concluding that the app does not appear to collect any more data than your typical mainstream social network. The following year, Pellaeon Lin, a Taiwan-based researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, performed another technical analysis that reached similar conclusions.

Still, even if TikTok collects about the same amount of information as Facebook or Twitter, that’s still quite a lot of data, including information about the videos you watch, comments you write, private messages you send, and — if you agree to grant this level of access — your exact geolocation and contact lists. (On Thursday, Chew said that current versions of TikTok do not collect precise GPS information from US users.)

TikTok’s impact on children a key point of focus

While national security was expected to be the primary focus of the hearing, multiple lawmakers also highlighted concerns about TikTok’s impact on children.

Democratic ranking member of the committee Rep. Frank Pallone, for example, said Thursday: “Research has found that TikTok’s algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.”

Rep. Bob Latta, a Republican from Ohio, accused TikTok of promoting a video on the so-called “blackout challenge” or choking challenge to the feed of a 10-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, who later died after trying to mimic the challenge in the video.

Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida also said there is a lack of adequate content moderation, which leaves room for kids to be exposed to content that promotes self harm.

“Your technology is literally leading to death,” Bilirakis said to TikTok CEO Shou Chew.

Citing examples of harmful content served to children, he said, “it is unacceptable, sir, that even after knowing all these dangers, you still claim that TikTok is something grand to behold.”

TikTok, for its parts, has launched a number of features in recent months to provide additional safeguards for younger users, including setting a new 60-minute default for daily time limit for those under the age of 18. Even that feature, however, was criticized by lawmakers as being too easy for teens to bypass.

Lawmaker compares Chew to Zuckerberg

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, a Democrat from California, blasted what he saw as Chew’s indirect responses and compared him to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who in his own testimonies in the past has also frustrated some members of Congress.

“You have been one of the few people to unite this committee,” Cárdenas told Chew. “You remind me a lot of Mark Zuckerberg. When he came here, I said to my staff, ‘He reminds me of Fred Astaire — good dancer with words.’ And you are doing the same today. A lot of your answers are a bit nebulous; they’re not yes or no.”

Zuckerberg testified before the same house committee for hours back in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. While both Chew and Zuckerberg lead major social media platforms, Zuckerberg was already a household name when he faced lawmakers back in 2018. Chew, meanwhile, has largely stayed out of the spotlight since he took the helm of TikTok back in 2021.

To prepare for his appearance Thursday, CNN learned Chew has spent the last week in near-dialy, multi-hour prep sessions. TikTok personnel have worked to sharpen and polish Chew’s presentation during these sessions. They have played the roles of lawmakers with various questioning styles, peppering Chew with practice queries and scenarios to ready him for hours of relentless interrogation.

Federal government ratchets up its rhetoric

Outside the hearing room, federal officials appeared to ramp up their rhetoric about TikTok.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said TikTok should be “ended one way or another,” but noted “there are different ways of doing that.” Speaking at a separate House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Blinken said he did not know if it would be sufficient for TikTok to be divested from its Chinese parent company.

The top US diplomat said he believed the app is a threat to US national security, but would not outright say that it should be banned. “Clearly, we, the administration and others are seized with the challenge that it poses and are taking action to address it,” he said.

In a separate statement on Thursday that did not address or name TikTok specifically, the US Treasury Department — the agency that chairs the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) — warned that it “will not clear any transaction unless it determines there are no unresolved national security concerns.”

“Broadly speaking, some transactions can present data security risks — including providing a foreign person or government with access to troves of Americans’ sensitive personal data as well as access to intellectual property, source code, or other potentially sensitive information,” a Department spokesperson said. “CFIUS, on a case-by-case basis, will ensure the protection of national security, including to prevent the misuse of data through espionage, tracking, and other means that threaten national security.”

For more than two years, CFIUS and TikTok have been negotiating on a possible deal that might address US security concerns and allow the app to continue operating in the United States.

But in his testimony, Chew attempted to ease the longstanding concerns about the app and called the fears of Chinese government access to TikTok’s user data “hypothetical.”

“I think a lot of risks that are pointed out are hypothetical and theoretical risks,” Chew said. “I have not seen any evidence. I am eagerly awaiting discussions where we can talk about evidence and then we can address the concerns that are being raised.”

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TikTok CEO: 5 takeaways from his first appearance before Congress