TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to answer members’ questions about the social-media app’s data security and connection to the Chinese government.
- Chew defends TikTok as a place to discover, create, and connect with others. “Although some people may still think of TikTok as a dancing app for teenagers, the reality is that our platform and our community have become so much more for so many,” he says.
- TikTok, Chew says, is more than just a place for fun social-media connection. It is also a way for small businesses to connect with customers.
- In response to the concerns of committee members, Chew says, “1) We will keep safety—particularly for teenagers—a top priority for us; 2) We will firewall protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access; 3) Tiktok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government; 4) We will be transparent and give access to third-party independent monitors, to remain accountable for our commitments.”
- Multiple committee members pushed back on TikTok’s “Project Texas,” the company’s plan to hold all U.S. user data in a Texas facility. Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) told Chew that he did not believe these measures would be sufficient to protect U.S. data.
- Though the focus of many lawmakers’ concerns has centered around national security, many committee members focused their questions on how the social-media app affects users—particularly teenagers—mental and physical health.
Why it’s news
Chew was met with intense criticism and severe accusations from committee members. Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers did not hold back in her opening statement, telling Chew directly, “Your platform should be banned.”
In comments made in a TikTok before the hearing, Chew emphasized the app’s popularity in the U.S., pointing out that nearly 150 million people are active monthly users on TikTok. Rather than viewing this positively, several committee members said this fact made them more concerned about the social media’s influence on its users.
“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,” Rodgers says.
In his opening comments, Chew emphasized how Americans use TikTok to bring attention and customers to their businesses and connect with one another. Pallone summed up the general attitude of the committee, saying, “I’m not convinced the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Chew made many attempts to soothe lawmakers’ concerns about the app’s influence on its users and its position as a potential security risk, but his answers to questions did not appear to convince committee members.
In response to questions regarding Chinese access to TikTok user data, Chew says, “I have looked in—and I have seen no evidence of this happening. 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.”
Multiple committee members brought up worries about young users’ access to inappropriate material on the app. Palone cited research that shows TikTok’s algorithms tend to recommend videos promoting self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders to teenagers. Representative Bob Latta (R-OH) cited an example of a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl who died after trying the “blackout challenge,” also known as the choking challenge, she reportedly saw on TikTok.
TikTok does have certain safeguards for younger users, such as a time limit for those under 18, but committee members pointed out that these restrictions are easily bypassed by tech-savvy teens.
Backing up a bit
TikTok parent company ByteDance is under increasing pressure from U.S. lawmakers as more revelations point to the social-media platform being a national security risk. Multiple states have banned the app on government devices, and the federal government has also banned the app on its employees’ work devices.
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet wrote a letter to Google and Apple in early February, encouraging the companies to ban TikTok from their app stores. In his letter to the tech giants, Bennet called the social-media app “an unacceptable threat to the national security of the United States.”
While the app has been banned on many state and federal government devices, a national TikTok ban is unprecedented in the U.S., though other countries have banned social-media sites before.
A new bipartisan bill introduced by a dozen senators would give the Secretary of Commerce power to regulate and potentially ban foreign technology, including TikTok. The Restricting the Emergence Of Security Threats That Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, or RESTRICT Act, allows the government to regulate technology from countries considered adversarial to the U.S., including China, Iran, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.
The White House endorsed the bill, saying it is “a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans.”
The bill does not explicitly mention the Chinese-based social-media platform TikTok, but several senators who introduced the bill repeatedly mentioned the dangers that TikTok poses to national security.
TikTok responded to the bill by saying, “a U.S. ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.”