TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has completed his first public hearing before the US Congress, where he sought to address concerns about the Chinese app’s ties to the Beijing government and alleged inability to counter “harmful” content.
The hearing, which lasted more than five hours, took place Thursday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
It underscored growing bipartisan support for taking action against TikTok, with both Democrats and Republicans on the committee expressing skepticism about the company’s autonomy from the Chinese government.
Chew, for his part, tried to portray the app, which has 150 million monthly users in the US, as “a place where people can be creative and curious.” He also claimed that the company is taking steps that will exceed industry standards in data protection and transparency.
Here are the main conclusions from the hearing:
Lawmakers repeatedly questioned Chew about China’s perceived influence over TikTok, an issue both Republican committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and leading Democrat Frank Pallone cited as a source of national security concern.
Pallone called the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, a “Beijing-based parent company”.
Chew repeatedly said that ByteDance is “not owned or controlled by the Chinese government” and that he has seen “no evidence” that the Chinese government has accessed or requested access to US user data.
#TikTokBeijing’s communist-based property and its popularity exacerbate the dangers to our country and privacy. Today @EnergyCommerce, we plan to bring more transparency to TikTok. Check out my opening 👇 pic.twitter.com/RxRD1hHOO1
— Representative Frank Pallone (@FrankPallone) March 23, 2023
He added that TikTok “does not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government”.
However, several lawmakers took advantage of Chew’s statement that — because the company relies on “global interoperability” — Chinese engineers may still have access to some U.S. data.
Chew dismissed allegations that TikTok posed a threat to national security. “I think many of the risks mentioned are hypothetical and theoretical risks,” he said.
Chew sought to address lawmakers’ concerns about the security of U.S. user data by outlining an initiative that will ensure “U.S. data is stored on U.S. soil by a U.S. company, under the supervision of U.S. personnel.”
The $1.5 billion “Project Texas” plan would rely on contracts with Texas-based technology company Oracle, Chew explained, using a “firewall that shields protected user data from unauthorized foreign access.”
The project is already running but not yet completed, according to Chew, who said “obsolete US data” was still being removed from old servers in the US and Singapore.
The statements provoked little delay from lawmakers.
“Please rename your project. Texas is not the right name,” said Republican August Pfluger, who represents Texas’s 11th congressional district. “We stand for freedom and transparency, and we don’t want your project.”
Lawmakers also turned to broader social media issues, questioning TikTok’s ability to moderate misinformation, harmful posts and age-inappropriate content. Several lawmakers used their time to show TikTok videos encouraging users to harm themselves or commit suicide.
Chew replied that TikTok employs 40,000 moderators to monitor harmful content, as well as an algorithm to flag controversial material. He added that the company will use “third-party validators” to review its algorithms and grant access to researchers to “study and monitor our content ecosystem.”
“I don’t think I can sit here and say we’re perfect at this,” Chew said. “We work very hard.”
TikTok CEO Shou Chew claims TikTok is “proactively removing” all “harmful content”.
That is clearly WRONG.
WATCH this TikTok inciting violence against the @HouseCommerce Committee hearing today.
It has been standing since February 10, 2023. pic.twitter.com/nO2CMOSm11
— Energy and Commerce Committee (@HouseCommerce) March 23, 2023
Still, in one of the most memorable moments of the hearing, Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican, played a TikTok video showing a gunshot with a threatening message about the ongoing committee hearing. She noted that the post had been on the app since Feb. 10.
“You expect us to believe you are capable of maintaining the data privacy and security of 150 million Americans if you can’t even protect the people in this room?” she asked.
TikTok removed the video in response to the comments.
Denial of Uyghur censorship in Tiananmen Square
Chew also denied that TikTok moderators are restricting posts pertaining to sensitive issues for the Chinese government, including the persecution of China’s ethnic Uyghur Muslim minority and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which troops fired on peaceful protesters.
“We don’t remove that kind of content. TikTok is a place for freedom of expression,” Chew said. “If you use our app, you can continue to express content on that topic and many others.”
A 2019 report by British newspaper The Guardian cited leaked documents showing that TikTok had directed moderators to censor videos mentioning Tiananmen Square, as well as other matters unfavorable to the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, in 2020, a TikTok executive told the UK Parliament that the platform had a history of censoring content critical of China, particularly regarding Uyghurs, but that the practice had stopped.
“I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime,” Rodgers told Chew.
One thing was clear at Thursday’s hearing: Chew — who was ByteDance’s chief financial officer before becoming CEO of TikTok in 2021 — won few hearts at the bipartisan committee.
“I have to hand it to you,” Representative Pfluger said. “You actually did something that hasn’t happened in the past three to four years, except maybe Vladimir Putin. You united Republicans and Democrats”
Representative Buddy Carter said, “Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress.”