TikTok CEO questioned by congress over data privacy and user safety

The TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew is expected to face questions from US lawmakers on Thursday as the political maelstrom around the social media platform grows.


TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese business ByteDance, has long been chastised for the data it collects on US users, which politicians fear may end up in the hands of the Chinese government. Despite the platform’s repeated denials that it maintains US user data outside of China, legislators on both sides of the aisle have united in their opposition to the company’s expanding popularity.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew

Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, was sitting in a studio with a camera and the TikTok logo. He can no longer dodge it because of an approaching ban.

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Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers alleged in a statement announcing the hearing that TikTok has “knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data.”

“Big tech has increasingly become a destructive force in American society,” she said. “The energy and commerce committee has been at the forefront of asking big tech CEOs – from Facebook to Twitter to Google – to answer for their companies’ actions. These efforts will continue with TikTok.”

Chew’s presence before the energy and commerce committee, the first by a TikTok CEO, will be a significant test for the 40-year-old CEO, who has hitherto remained mainly out of the spotlight. He is anticipated to use his visit to allay lawmakers’ concerns about data procedures and to promise to not enable the Chinese government to have any influence over TikTok.

“Let me state unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew stated in a statement released ahead of his hearing.

Chew, a former Goldman Sachs banker who has led the company since March 2021, cautioned followers earlier this week in a TikTok video that the company was at a “pivotal moment.”

“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” he said, adding that the app now has more than 150 million active monthly US users. “That’s almost half the US coming to TikTok.”

Congress lawmakers had previously condemned the company and Chew himself before his presence, implying that his testimony could not be trusted. Senator Mark Warner stated in a statement that regardless of what is said during the hearing, Congress should move through with legislation that provides for a more thorough vetting of foreign technology.

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“While I appreciate Mr Chew’s willingness to answer questions before Congress, TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees, including Mr Chew,” he said.

Since its stratospheric rise began in 2018, TikTok has faced legislative barriers. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of youths in the United States use TikTok, with 67% of persons aged 13 to 17 stating they had ever used the app and 16% indicating they use it “almost constantly.”

This has generated worries about the app’s impact on the safety of teenage users, with self-harm and eating disorder-related content spreading on the platform. TikTok is also facing legal action in connection with tragic “challenges” that have gone viral on the app. According to McMorris Rodgers, lawmakers “need to know what actions the company is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms.” In response to such critiques, TikTok has implemented features like automatic time limitations for users under the age of 18.

The Trump administration first formally attacked the platform in 2020, with an executive order preventing US corporations from doing business with ByteDance. Biden withdrew the order in June 2021, with the condition that the corporation be reviewed by the US Committee on Foreign Investment. When that review came to a halt, Biden declared that TikTok must sell its Chinese-owned shares or face a ban in the United States.

The business has responded to concerns by attempting to show the safety of US data, such as the unveiling of Project Texas, a $1.5 billion investment to store US data outside of China that began in January of this year.

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TikTok’s efforts to assuage US concerns have been insufficient, legislators say, and members of Congress will look into whether TikTok’s data can be accessed by the Chinese government and whether the platform’s highly tailored recommendation algorithm can be manipulated by security services to influence what users see today.

Some tech critics have noted that, while TikTok’s data collecting is concerning, its tactics are not unlike those of other large internet companies.

“Holding TikTok and China accountable are steps in the right direction, but doing so without holding other platforms accountable is simply not enough,” said the Tech Oversight Project, a technology policy advocacy organization, in a statement.

“Lawmakers and regulators should use this week’s hearing as an opportunity to re-engage with civil society organizations, NGOs, academics, and activists to squash all of Big Tech’s harmful practices,” the group added.


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