TikTok CEO testifies on Capitol Hill

Washington is considering a complete ban on the world’s most popular app amid rising geopolitical tensions.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By ZHANG Yongyi


TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the US congress on Thursday to explain his company’s stance on data privacy and child protection. US lawmakers are considering a ban on the world’s most popular app amid rising geopolitical tensions.

TikTok was the most popular app globally in 2022, with 672 million downloads. The app has 150 million users in the US and has been caught in the crosshairs of the US government due to its ties to Beijing-based ByteDance.

‘Ownership is the issue’

ByteDance is best known for its mobile entertainment apps including TikTok, Helo (India), Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok), and BaBe (Indonesia). AI-powered Toutiao is one of the most popular news aggregators in China.

In 2020, then US president Donald Trump issued an executive order, later revoked by the Biden administration, essentially banning the app. Now, Washington is again pressing ByteDance to sell TikTok or face another ban.

Much of the four-and-a-half-hour hearing was centered around whether TikTok’s links with China would infringe on US users’ data privacy.

Washington has already banned TikTok on government devices. Ottawa and London have similar restrictions. Last December, TikTok admitted that ByteDance employees had obtained the IP addresses of journalists critical of the company. They did not act with the company’s blessing and were immediately fired.

Chew emphasized that TikTok “is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government.” He talked about Project Texas – a 1.5–billion-dollar project to move US data to domestic servers. After that process is completed, Oracle, an American company, would hold the information of American users.

Chew was clear that “ownership is the issue here.” Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have been incredibly careless with user data in the past. American social-media companies pose just as much of a data privacy threat as overseas concerns, he said.

Another focal point was TikTok’s influence on teenagers. The parents of 16-year-old Chase Nasca who took his own life last year also testified, saying their son died after he watched “hours of psychologically disturbing” content on the app. TikTok is accused of making itself addictive to maximize profit, as well as promoting self-harm and eating disorder among teenagers.

Chew said these issues were not limited to TikTok, and that the company has invested in measures to protect young users.

Political grandstanding

Tony Cárdenas, a congressman from California, said Chew was simply playing with words, and that the vague answers reminded him of Mark Zuckerberg when he testified on Facebook’s data-privacy practices in 2018.

Chew was often prevented from making his argument. Lawmakers tended to devote most of their allotted time to elaborating on their own positions before throwing out a yes-or-no question when they had said their piece.

‘Let him speak’

Chew was very much a bit of a part player in the unfolding drama. Whenever he tried to explain the nuances of an issue in a question, he was either pressed again for a yes or no, or cut off because the time was up. Social media live-streaming comments were strewn with “Let him speak.”

TikTok has made an effort to win popular support outside Capitol Hill. Chew held a meeting with two dozen TikTok influencers before the hearing. He also posted a video of himself asking users to support the app.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said the hearing showed a bipartisan concern over data privacy, and that Americans would be safer if TikTok was sold to a US company.

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter issued a statement saying that “unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas.”

Unjustified suppression

After the hearing, MAO Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the US side should respect the market economy and the principles of fair competition, and stop suppressing foreign companies.

"We have also noted the comments made by TikTok," Mao said, noting that the Chinese government attaches great importance to data privacy and security.

Beijing has never and will never ask companies or individuals to collect or provide data, information, and intelligence located in foreign countries in a manner that violates local laws, she said.

"The US government has yet to provide any evidence that TikTok poses a threat to its national security," Mao said, pointing out that some members of Congress have suggested that seeking to ban TikTok is political persecution.

The US side should respect the market economy and the principles of fair competition, stop unjustly suppressing foreign companies, and provide an open, fair, and non-discriminatory environment for them to operate in the United States, the spokesperson said.