On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew give his first interview since sparring with House lawmakers in a testy hearing back in March. Chew is one of dozens of business leaders speaking at the TED2023 “Possibility” conference held in Vancouver, Canada. In a softball discussion that saw that the interviewer praising Chew and asking for a selfie, the embattled CEO reiterated the ways TikTok is addressing public criticisms, and explained why his app is good for America and the world.
“What we have done is that based on our machine learning algorithms on showing people what they like. And what they means is we’re giving the everyday person a platform to be discovered,” Chew said, contrasting TikTok with other apps such as Facebook and Instagram that are built on social networks. “I think it’s very freeing to have a platform where, as long as you have talent, you’re going to be heard and you have a chance to succeed.”
Thanks to easy questions with little to no follow up, the interview was largely a foil to Chew’s congressional hearing. Both events were pointless but for opposite reasons. In the House of Representatives, congress traded meaningful questions for political grandstanding. On the TED stage, it looked more like a casual chat between new friends.
“You’re super compelling and likable as a CEO,” said Chris Anderson, curator of TED, before asking Chew to take a selfie and post it on TikTok.
Chew, who has been on a weeks-long campaign to try and persuade lawmakers not to ban the app in the US, spoke about entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence, and society’s connection to social media. Elon Musk took part in a similar TED interview around this time last year where he expounded on his rationale for buying Twitter and tried to articulate his often incorrect definition of freedom of speech.
TikTok’s CEO’s first public interview since combative House hearing
Chew’s brief interview marks his first major public appearance since a five-hour-long, mostly-bad-faith grilling from lawmakers sitting on the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March. When Chew could (occasionally) get a word in, he tried to paint a picture of TikTok as a safe, “sunny corner of the internet” used by some 150 million Americans, close to half of the country, according to the company.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle were unconvinced. Instead, many railed against TikTok for allegedly catalyzing harmful misinformation and dangerous health trends while another more raucous cohort demanded Chew prove TikTok couldn’t be used by the Chinese government as a surveillance tool. Exasperated, Chew told one lawmaker he felt like he was being faced with the impossible task of proving a negative.
The TikTok CEO ostensibly went to DC to attach a human face to the app and try to temper growing calls for a nationwide ban, but it seems like the hearing may have had the opposite effect. Chew was forced to admit publicly that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, does currently have access to US user data on an “as-required basis” Though Chew assured lawmakers that would no longer be the case once TikTok completes its Project Texas data routing partnership with Oracle, the connections with mainland China gave hawkish lawmakers even more ammunition to attack the company.
Project Texas is essentially a plan to house American user data on servers in the United States, as though there isn’t an internet where you can share data over an email. It’s an intersting prospect, to say the least, but on the TED stage, Chew had nothing new to share.
“What we did was we built an unprecedented project where we localize American data, to be stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” Chew said. So this this kind of protection for American data is beyond what any other company in our industry has ever done.”
Another key concern from American lawmakers is the possibility that TikTok to promote or censor certain content to advance China’s political goals. These propaganda concerns are serious, where most experts with a real understanding of the internet argue the data privacy and security issues are overblown.
“The way we are trying to address this concern is an unprecedented amount of transparency. What do I mean by this? We’re actually allowing third party reviewers to come in and review the source code. I don’t know any other company that does this,” Chew said.
Ready or not, TikTok bans are around the corner
It might have seemed unlikely just a few months ago, but calls to ban TikTok are gaining meaningful momentum. The federal government and more than half of all US states have already passed legislation banning the app on government devices. There are currently around half a dozen other bills floating through Congress that, one way or another, would result in a full-on national TikTok ban if they’re passed.
Pressure is mounting on the state level too. Last week, Montana officials became the first state to pass legislation banning the app on private devices, leading to fear a snowball effect of copycat laws from other states could ensue. Dozens of civil liberties groups including the ACLU oppose the bans on First Amendment grounds and say they would deal a crushing blow to freedom of expression online if they’re allowed to pass.
A handful of Democrats in Congress have spoken out forcefully against further restricting the app, but they are in the minority. Nearly every Republican on record, minus libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, meanwhile seems supportive of a national ban. Even Joe Biden’s administration, which long remained silent on the issues, has since said it wants to see a forced spinoff of TikTok’s US business.
The general public, on the other hand, seems more split on how to handle TikTok. A recent Washington Post poll found 41% of US adults said they support a federal ban on the app. A slightly higher portion (49%) of adults in a recent SocialSphere poll similarly said they support a ban.
Somehow, the looming threat of bans didn’t come up at Thursday’s interview, leaving conversations about one of the most significant developments in tech for another day.
Update, Apr. 21, 5:13 p.m. EST: This story has been updated with a link to a video of the interview.