TikTok Faces First Congressional Appearance

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Like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and other tech honchos before him, TikTok’s Shou Chew faced aggressive questioning in his first testimony before Congress on Thursday.

Lawmakers’ criticisms of technology platforms have been bubbling over lately in general, but particularly when it comes to the Chinese-owned social video platform. Amid calls to ban the app, Chew, TikTok’s chief executive officer, sat in the hot seat as the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled him about the data it collects from American users — of more than one billion users worldwide, 150 million or more are in the U.S. — who has access and how it will protect that.

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But it wasn’t a simple fact-finding inquiry. The company, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has always delineated its American business from the Chinese operation, but it was clear during Thursday’s proceedings that Congress doesn’t believe it. In fact, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the committee, minced no words, telling Chew that: “Your platform should be banned,” and that Chew will probably say anything to prevent it, but “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.”

Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) said, “I still contend that TikTok is the spy in Americans’ pockets.”

The company has been here before. The Trump administration aimed to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok, relinquishing control to U.S. companies, or face a ban. The matter fell somewhat silent during the transition to President Biden’s administration, but has been heating up again since last summer.

For Chew’s first appearance before the House, he recycled an old talking point, emphasizing that the app, as a U.S.-based business that operates independently, is not beholden to China. “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China,” he said in his opening remarks. “We’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today.”

He acknowledged concerns about foreign access to U.S. consumers’ data and “manipulation” of the platform and explained that TikTok addressed those fears with concrete actions and plans to do even more.

Under the previous administration, an acquisition deal with Oracle Corp., Walmart Inc. and other investors was hatched but fell apart. But ever since, TikTok has been working with Oracle to have another set of eyes on the data. Internally, the measure is considered a safeguard, and according to Chew, the company intends to move all of its data warehousing and monitoring to American soil.

That doesn’t appear to appease lawmakers’ concerns, as renewed calls to banish the platform boil over again.

“Last month you announced that TikTok would expand access to its research or API. But I’m concerned that your new policy could be more bark than bite.…I’ve heard directly from parents in my home state of Massachusetts, independent researchers, [that] not just other tech companies like Oracle, [but others] need to be able to evaluate how TikTok’s algorithm is making decisions to promote content,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

To a line of questioning from Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., about China’s access to the data, Chew explained that he has seen no sign of that. She reacted by calling it “preposterous.” Others apparently agree, as a number of countries, including the U.S., have prohibited the app on government devices due to security concerns, and countries like India banned this app and others tied to China completely.

The CEO admitted at one point that TikTok does work with some China-based staffers from ByteDance, and they may have some access to U.S. app data. But TikTok is working on a $1.5 billion risk mitigation plan called Project Texas, which will end that access.

So far, the brands and agencies WWD spoke to haven’t changed their social media strategies because of the intensifying glare on TikTok. But it’s unclear how that might change in the future. Chew responded to many of the inquiries by saying he would get back to the members with more specifics later, which doesn’t do much now to quell the uncertainty of its fate in the U.S.

Internally, U.S.-based TikTok employees claim that they aren’t rattled by Washington’s machinations, so there’s no impact on their day-to-day operations — which includes developing and supporting TikTok shopping tests ahead of an eventual full rollout. But it’s hard to imagine those plans being immune for long, if Washington has its way and institutes a ban. They would likely be significantly impacted, if not scuttled, by whatever measures Congress ultimately decides to take.

Understandably, the stakes are high for Chew, so it’s no surprise that he repeatedly emphasized the separation of powers inside the organization. But representative after representative stated that they just don’t believe him.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., laid it out in blunt fashion: “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.”

Another key part of Chew’s defense framed TikTok’s practices as being in line with data “that’s frequently collected by many other companies in our industry,” he said. Independent research appears to support that. Various projects evaluated the matter and concluded that the app appears to collect the same kind of data as other popular social networks.

In other words, TikTok claims that it acts the same way as other technology giants. But even if it could convince Congress of it, that may not be a winning argument, given Washington’s ongoing scrutiny of big tech firms such as Meta and Google.

Representatives such as Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, leaned into a similar aspect of the platform: its virality and influence on consumers, especially younger users.

“[It’s] the preferred platform of young Americans, and they use it for all kinds of creative and important things.…Most people using TikTok do not realize that TikTok is collecting data about their keystrokes or about their browsing history on other sites and so much more,” Fulcher said, agreeing with colleagues “that we need a comprehensive set of data privacy laws here in the country.”

Chew denied engaging in any keystroke logging, except for security measures like identifying bots.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Democratic ranking member of the committee, stated that “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.”

Others called out dangerous TikTok challenges, like the “blackout challenge” or “choking challenge,” which led to a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl’s death, and emphasized concern over content moderation that allows the potential for self-harm to get through.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., likened Chew to Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg as another tech bigwig who brings a lot of words to Congress, but not a lot of information. Reportedly, the TikTok CEO went through many hours of training to prepare for Thursday’s testimony.

The array of questions — and jabs — came from both sides of the aisle, a fact so notable that it came up several times.

“Mr. Chew, I’ve got to hand it to you. You’ve actually done something that, in the last three to four years, has not happened, except for the exception of maybe Vladimir Putin,” said Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas. “You have unified Republicans and Democrats. And if only for a day, we’re actually unified because we have serious concerns.”

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