Congress

TikTok CEO's Capitol Hill testimony raises questions

As lawmakers consider banning TikTok in the U.S., its CEO said "Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives."

TikTok CEO's Capitol Hill testimony raises questions
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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TikTok CEO Shou Chew faced questioning by members of Congress on Thursday as lawmakers try to decide what the platform’s future holds in the U.S.

TikTok reports it has more than 150 million users in the U.S., meaning a potential ban would affect many Americans. 

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden signaled support for bipartisan legislation that would give him the authority to ban social media apps that are deemed a national security threat. 

The FBI had previously determined that TikTok could be a potential national security concern over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party — ties that TikTok executives say are way overblown. 

Sen. Warner on TikTok: Their 1st loyalty has to be to Communist Party
Sen. Warner on TikTok: Their 1st loyalty has to be to Communist Party

Sen. Warner on TikTok: Their 1st loyalty has to be to Communist Party

Many lawmakers now consider this China-owned technology an urgent national security threat.

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In prepared remarks to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chew told lawmakers that TikTok takes security seriously.

“We collect a limited amount of information when people set up an account, such as date of birth and username,” Chew said. “Depending on how the individual signs up, we may also collect a phone number or email address. Unlike some other platforms, we do not require people on TikTok to provide us with their real names during registration, nor do we ask them about their employment or relationship status. Current versions of the app do not collect precise or approximate GPS information from U.S. users.”

But some of his testimony drew concerns. It also appeared the angst about TikTok was bipartisan as members from both parties expressed concerns in testimony.

Chew was asked by Rep. Neal Dunn, a Florida Republican,  "Has ByteDance spied on American citizens?"

"I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it," Chew said.

Beyond spying concerns, lawmakers expressed concern over TikTok's algorithm and how sometimes dangerous and illegal trends begin on the platform. 

 "The milk crate, the blackout challenge, you know about the NyQuil chicken challenge, the Benadryl challenge, the dragon's breath liquid nitrogen...why is it that you allow this to go on?" asked Rep. Buddy Carter, a Georgia Republican. 

"This is a real industry challenge," Chew said.

TikTok is the target of a possible ban is that TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, has financial connections to the Chinese Communist Party. 

“I am well aware that the fact that ByteDance has Chinese founders has prompted concerns that our platform could be used as or become a tool of China or the Chinese Communist Party,” Chew said. “There have even been calls to ban us or require divestment. I steadfastly believe that all concerns that have been raised have solutions. Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives. But we do have an alternative—one that we believe addresses the concerns we’ve heard from this committee and others.”

Chew stated that TikTok is currently developing platform research and content moderation APIs to help bring transparency to how the platform operates.

Some lawmakers worry TikTok threatens national security
Some lawmakers worry TikTok threatens national security

Some lawmakers worry TikTok threatens national security

President Joe Biden and lawmakers have signaled support for a ban on TikTok, but experts say it won't easy to carry out.

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Lawmakers have claimed that connection could allow China to turn the app into a surveillance tool, an accusation TikTok executives have repeatedly pushed back on. 

“I understand that there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about U.S. users with the Chinese government,” Chew said. “This is emphatically untrue.”

Some lawmakers seem unmoved by Chew’s comments. 

“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s locations to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data, and more,” said Rep. Cathy Anne McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican. “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values—values for freedom, human rights, and innovation. TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation."

According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan platform tracking political spending, TikTok has spent over 10 million dollars in recent years trying to convince lawmakers that TikTok data is safe. 

In recent days, Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York has announced his support for TikTok staying legal in the U.S.