The CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, appeared before Congress on Thursday to address concerns about the company’s privacy and security practices, its relationship with China, and its impact on young users. Chew sought to reassure lawmakers that TikTok would safeguard the safety of minors, bolster its privacy and security practices, and prevent unauthorized foreign access to US user data. He also denied allegations that TikTok shares information about US users with the Chinese government or that it is beholden to the Chinese government.
During the five-hour hearing, Chew faced numerous questions from lawmakers about TikTok’s relationship with China, its failure to moderate disturbing content, and its plans to build trust in the US, its biggest market. Several representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on young users, with one representative suggesting that teens can easily bypass the app’s 60-minute watch limit. In another exchange, Chew objected to using the term “spying” to describe an incident in which ByteDance employees surveilled US citizens through TikTok in order to identify the source of leaked information.
Chew cited a report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab, claiming that the organization definitively found no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. However, Citizen Lab’s director responded in real time on Twitter, criticizing the characterization and stating that they had no visibility into what happened to user data once it was collected and transmitted back to TikTok’s servers.
Prior to the hearing, Chew took to the app to announce that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the US, a sizable jump up from its last reported numbers. This milestone has raised concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and served as a threat that a US ban would outrage users and creators alike. The committee pressed Chew over measures that TikTok is taking to protect kids on the app, noting that the hearing is the latest effort to make tech companies accountable for their negative impacts on society.
While there’s no evidence that China is harvesting data on Americans or intentionally shaping political behavior through its algorithms, there is reason to be concerned that the company’s privacy practices aren’t airtight. Last year, an internal investigation at the company confirmed reporting that employees at its Beijing headquarters intended to track US journalists via their TikTok activity in an effort to uncover the source of internal leaks. The Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is working with the FBI and the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy, putting additional pressure on the company’s imperiled US business.
TikTok has long pushed back over privacy concerns, arguing that TikTok’s American operations are walled off from its Beijing-based leadership and from China itself. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the US government is currently seeking to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, threatening a national ban on the app if the company doesn’t comply. However, Chew has assured lawmakers that the company will never share US user data with China and that ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.