After TikTok CEO’s Congressional Testimony, Lawmakers Say Momentum Is Growing For A Ban On The App — Update

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2ND UPDATE, 12:27 PM PT: “Thank you, Mr. Chew, for bringing Republicans and Democrats together,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) said to the CEO of TikTok as a marathon congressional hearing was winding down Thursday.

Lawmakers of both parties pilloried the company and expressed frustration at what they saw as CEO Shou Zi Chew’s evasive answers during the session before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was a rare congressional hearing where there was so much agreement on the criticism of a company and a witness, albeit not all members said that TikTok should be banned and some focused their comments on social media privacy in general.

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Will the publicity surrounding the hearing compel lawmakers to move on legislation? Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who have proposed a bill that would allow the Commerce Secretary to ban TikTok and other apps connected to foreign countries, released a statement saying that they are “encouraged by the quick momentum and strong bipartisan support for our legislation that will only grow following today’s testimony.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told CNN that he would support legislation that would ban the app.

House members of the Energy and Commerce Committee clearly found unconvincing Chew’s insistence that TikTok parent ByteDance wasn’t controlled by the Chinese government. Some cited a Chinese law that requires companies to cooperate with the country’s intelligence services, if called upon to do so.

Chew came into the hearing perhaps hopeful that TikTok’s in-the-works Project Texas would assuage concerns over the platforms handling of U.S. data. It would keep such information within the U.S. on servers here, and under the oversight of a third party.

But lawmakers today pressed him on what the status is of data being collected now. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-TX) pointed to the company’s current privacy policy that said that user data may be shared within TikTok’s corporate group. Chew referred to Project Texas, indicating that data would be firewalled by the end of the year, but Armstrong pressed him. “I am asking you today. Who has access to TikTok’s user data?”

Chew said he “didn’t believe” that the company was sharing data now, but Armstrong then smirked at his answers following the back and forth.

The big caveat to all this: Multiple times over the past five years, tech CEOs have faced the congressional hot seat, with lawmakers promising legislation. But no major data privacy bill has cleared Congress.

TikTok released a statement after the hearing saying that the CEO “came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety.” The company also said that the committee did not address “the livelihoods of the 5 million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans.”

UPDATED, 9:24 AM PT: As the CEO of TikTok hears from the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, several have expressed support of a ban of the social media site.

As they have done at past hearings featuring tech CEOs, lawmakers have singled out instances of extreme content posted on the site.

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) played a user’s video that spread the word of the date of the hearing with the picture of a assault weapon. The name of the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), also was featured in the clip.

Cammack said that the post has remained on the platform for 41 days and is a “direct threat to the chairwoman of this committee, the people in this room. And yet it still remains on the platform.”

Speaking to CEO Shou Zi Chew, Cammack said, “You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of a 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect people in this room? I think that is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are.”

Chew asked to respond, but McMorris Rodgers moved on to the next lawmaker.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) later noted that TikTok took down the video during the hearing. “I was briefed during the break that they are taken down,” Chew said.

“It goes to show the enormous challenge that we have,” he said.

Another member raised concerns about TikTok user videos that promote suicide. Chew said that they do provide resources for anyone who types in information about suicide, but Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) complained that he was “not willing” to answer whether he had “full responsibility” over TikTok algorithms to prioritize content.

“Your technology is literally leading to death,” Bilirakis said.

Chew also was asked if TikTok would be willing to divest from ByteDance. “I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect, American social [media] companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example.”

He said that what was important was “firewalling” U.S. data and “giving third parties ability to come in, to have a look at this, and making sure that everybody is comfortable.”

PREVIOUSLY: The chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee opened a hearing featuring the CEO of TikTok by telling him that “your platform should be banned.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said Thursday that “banning your platform will address the immediate threats,” as lawmakers of both parties have singled out the social media giant, whose parent is Chinese tech company ByteDance, as a danger to national security and privacy. The wildly popular service has more than 1 billion monthly active users, including more than 150 million in the U.S.

She said, “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.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), said that he agreed with much of what Rodgers said, reflecting the bipartisan criticism directed at TikTok.

TikTok is already banned for employees of U.S. government agencies. The Biden administration last week insisted that TikTok parent ByteDance divest the platform or face a ban. The Trump administration had previously made a stab at forcing a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations to a company Stateside, then at removing the platform from app stores here. Courts denied preliminary injunctions to ban the app and the effort fizzled, but concern remains high.

A group of senators led by Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) this month introduced a bill, the RESTRICT Act, that would give the federal government new power to restrict and ban technologies from China and five other nations deemed U.S. adversaries, bypassing courts.

Shou Chew, the company’s CEO, tried to fend off the bipartisan attacks by lawmakers and their concerns over a lack of safeguards in place to prevent user data from being accessed by Chinese authorities. He referred numerous times to a still-in-the-works “firewall” called Project Texas that would prevent unauthorized access to data by China, with Oracle storing the data in the U.S. All data would be under “the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team.”

“We have designed Project Texas to protect U.S. users’ interests,” Chew said.

However, committee members seemed to have very little interest in exploring the specifics of timing or potential efficacy of the plan. Meanwhile, Chew acknowledged that unless and until Project Texas is implemented, the data is currently not secure.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) told Chew that even though he spoke of a “firewall” to protect users’ data, the Chinese government “has that data.”

“How can you promise that that will move into the United States and be protected here?”

Chew responded, “I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data. They have never asked us. We have not provided.”

Eshoo replied, “I find that actually preposterous.”

He didn’t win brownie points by declining to give any financials for TikTok, like revenue or how much it earns for parent ByteDance. TikTok a private company so that is not public information. The committee made hay of the fact that TikTok and ByteDance share a general counsel in the U.S. and that the two companies share employees, some located in China.

Lawmakers also pressed Chew with a second line of attack, on the broader ills of social media — from disinformation and hate speech to algorithms destructive to mental health and, specfically, to teenagers — separate from the issue of Chinese control. Chew outlined measures the company has taken to protect teenagers on the platform from time limits to parental controls. But he repeatedly noted that these are issues involving the entire social media ecosystem.

Execs from Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube owner Microsoft, Twitter and other social media platforms have also been called multiple times to testify on the Hill amid ongoing conflict over Section 230. That provision of the decades-old Communications Decency Act gives internet companies legal immunity from most content on their sites.

The calls for banning TikTok have drawn pushback from platform creators, who appeared on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby against the restrictions. Other concerns have been raised about the First Amendment implications of such a move PEN America and more than a dozen other groups released a letter tied to the hearing opposing a U.S. ban on TikTok.

Chew also made a point of telling lawmakers that he was born in Singapore and later moved to the UK, went to college in the U.S. and is married to an American, and that TikTok is headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore.

“Today, U.S. TikTok data is stored by default in Oracle servers. Only vetted personnel operating in a new company called TikTok U.S. data security can control access to this data,” Chew stressed. But it was clear early on in the hearing that lawmakers found those measures insufficient. McMorris Rodgers challenged Chew’s assertion that TikTok parent ByteDance is not under the control of the Chinese Communist party.

Chew said that 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors, which include Carlyle Group and General Atlantic, and an additional 20% is owned by ByteDance employees. The remaining 20% is owned by the company’s founder, who is “a private individual and is not part of any state or government entity,” the company said. TikTok spokespeople also say that ByteDance has no single global headquarters.

But lawmakers said the issue is that the CCP has de facto control of all Chinese corporations, public or private.

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