TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in a combative hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday. As expected, Congress ran Chew through the gauntlet, but the hearing included a number of stunning moments. Among them, one congresswoman pointed out a TikTok video of a gun threatening the committee’s lives, which the company promptly removed while the hearing was still going. Chew also tacitly admitted the company sells user data.
Chew desperately attempted to present the app as a safe and massively popular “sunny corner of the internet” and not a surreptitious surveillance tool for the Chinese government. The company is locked in a battle with the US government, trying to prevent a nationwide ban on the country’s most popular short-form video app.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum treated Chew like a punching bag, allowing the CEO few opportunities to give complete answers and using the hearing as a vehicle to voice a bevy of tough-on-China blather.
Lawmakers’ responses to Chew’s pitch during the hearing could set the precedent for the U.S. government deals not just with TikTok, but really any major Chinese brand trying to weave itself into the fabric of Americans’ daily lives. The prospects for those apps don’t look good.
Florida Rep. Kat Cammack shocked the room, and apparently TikTok, during the hearing by sharing a TikTok video depicting a gun being loaded with the caption, “me as f at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23.” The video, which Cammack described as a clear threat against the committee members, had been online for 41 days. TikTok later confirmed it removed the video from the app following the representative’s public disclosure.
“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room,” Cammack said.
“It goes to show the enormous challenge that we have to make sure that, although the vast majority of the users come for a good experience, we need to make sure that bad actors don’t post violations,” Chew said.
In one exchange, Chew avoided direct questions about whether TikTok sells the data it collects.
“I believe we do not sell data to any data brokers,” Chew said in response to a question from Rep. Frank Pallone. “I didn’t ask you about data brokers,” Pallone said. “Do you sell it to anyone?”
“Congressman, I actually am in support of some rules...” Chew responded before another interruption from Pallone. “I didn’t ask you about rules, I asked you whether the company TikTok would commit to not sell data to anyone.”
“I can get back to you on the details,” Chew said.
While many companies sell data, most major tech platforms don’t, as it would be too valuable to their competitors. There’s more money to be made by hoarding personal information. During Mark Zuckerberg’s own congressional testimony in 2019, the CEO stressed that selling data isn’t part of Meta’s business. “We don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do.” Google makes similar promises.
TikTok harvests a wide variety of information, and not just from inside the app. Earlier this year, a Gizmodo report found that more than 28,000 apps send data to TikTok. The company also receives data from websites across the internet including government websites and sensitive organizations such as pharmacies and Planned Parenthood.
Chew admitted to multiple lawmakers Thursday that engineers at Beijing-based ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, do currently have access to US user data “on an as-required basis.” The CEO quickly added that would no longer be the case once the company’s US data routing plan called “Project Texas” is complete. The admission from the CEO confirms earlier reports from BuzzFeed News claiming China-based ByteDance employees repeatedly accessed data about US TikTok users. Chew refuted lawmakers’ accusations, however, that TikTok moderates content on behalf of the Chinese communist party.
“We do not remove or promote content at the behest of the Chinese government.”
Chew faced aggressive, often, unproductive lines of questioning from lawmakers who frequently asked the CEO to provide yes or no answers to complex technical questions. Lawmakers, particularly from the GOP side, expressed fury when Chew answered vaguely and at times implied that he could be charged with federal crimes for lying under oath. In one heated exchange, Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers asked Chew whether or not TikTok removed content related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. When Chew said that content was available on the platform, Rodgers expressed frustration and warned Chew against lying under oath.
“I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime,” Rodgers said.
The relatively reclusive CEO’s depiction of TikTok rest on three core elements: product safety, popularity, and data security. On the first of those issues, Chew tried to juxtapose TikTok’s safety practice against the horrendous privacy histories of other major social media products like Facebook and Instagram.
TikTok is acutely aware of its popularity among younger users, and Chew highlighted the numerous policies over the years aimed at limiting screen time for teens. Chew pointed to some of those efforts like blocking users under the age of 16 from sending DMs and rolling out one-hour scrolling limits for users under 18, as a way to push back against lawmakers’ accusations that the app is harmful and even addictive to young users. In the past, Republican lawmakers have compared TikTok to “digital fentanyl,” or more recently as cocaine “disguised as candy.”
“We launch great products with a safety-by-design mentality, even if those features limit our monetization opportunities,” Chew said during his opening statement. “Many of these measures impose restrictions not shared by other platforms.”
Chew amplified new internal user data to argue TikTok in the US, is simply too big to break up and that doing so could decimate thousands of small businesses. The CEO told lawmakers the app has amassed 150 million monthly active users, higher than the 100 million figure reporters just two years ago. Those figures don’t account for users under the age of 13, meaning TikTok’s total estimated user base is even higher. Chew added that around 5 million businesses use TikTok to reach their customers.
“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,” Chew said.
That point was buttressed Wednesday evening by a group of around 30 Tikok continent creators who gathered outside the national’s capital protesting national beans and calling on lawmakers to “Keep TikTok.”
“I use TikTok to share a love of my family and our journey through foster care and adoption, and through that I’ve been able to create a community of people from all over the world,” TikTok creator Jason Linton said during the rally, according to NBC News. “I’m asking our politicians: Don’t take away the community that we’ve built.”
Then there’s the Chinese government question, which dominated much of the hearing. Lawmakers and U.S. intelligence agencies have long claimed—without providing any evidence—that TikTok’s Chinese ownership means Communist officials tap into the app and use it as a surveillance tool to work against U.S. interests. Chew dismissed this point.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he said.
To that end, Chew tried to alleviate lawmakers’ concerns by speaking at length of the groups’ US data routing plan called “Project Texas” which promises to silo its American operation into a subsidiary called TikTok US Data Security, whose leadership would require American government approval.
Chew faces an uphill battle. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have ratcheted up calls for a national TikTok ban in recent weeks. The app is already banned on all federal devices in the US, and many other countries are following suit. The Biden administration, long silent on where it stood on TikTok, last week told its Chinese owners to spin off their shares of the platform or face a ban.
That legislative pressure, combined with a general public increasingly divided over a TikTok ban, makes this just about the worst possible moment for Chew to make his case to Congress.
“The temperature is so high right now,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Director of Strategic Technologies Jim Lewis said in a recent interview with The Washington Post, “I would not choose this week to go to the Hill unless you have a death wish.”
Chew, according to The Washington Post, has reportedly spent weeks meeting individually with each member of the Energy and Commerce committee to hear out their concerns and try to clear up, “misunderstandings.” Chew took over as TikTok CEO in 2021 after serving as chief executive of Chinese-owned Xaomi, where he oversaw the company’s 2018 IPO.
“We hear general unrelated fears, analogies, associations that don’t make sense,” Chew told the Post. “And for those, I think the right approach is to make sure that we reach out to understand.”
Unfortunately, those calls for reason appear futile. During the hearing, it was clear that many lawmakers in Congress, have their minds made up and are unlikely to be persuaded by Chew’s arguments.
“While I appreciate Mr. Chew’s willingness to answer questions before Congress, TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees, including Mr. Chew,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement to Politico. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who has also introduced his own legislation calling for a national ban, said he doesn’t need any more information on the issue.
“I don’t think TikTok’s CEO will be keen to answer questions about the app’s data collection or its ties to the CCP,” he told Politico.