Thursday, US legislators interrogated the CEO of TikTok on data security and hazardous content, responding with scepticism to his promises that the massively popular video-sharing app prioritizes user safety and should not be prohibited.
Shou Zi Chew's rare public appearance occurred at a pivotal time for the corporation, which has 150 million American users but is facing increasing pressure from the US government. TikTok and its Chinese parent firm, ByteDance, have become embroiled in a more significant geopolitical conflict between Beijing and Washington about trade and technology.
To reign in the dominance of a robust social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed Chew on various issues, including TikTok's content moderation policies, how the firm expects to secure American data from Beijing, and journalist snooping.
"Mr Chew, you are here because the American people need to know the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security," said Republican Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Chew told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users, denying that it poses a threat to national security. He reaffirmed the company's intention to safeguard US user data by putting it on servers operated and controlled by software titan Oracle.
Chew stated categorically that ByteDance is not an agency of China or any other country.
TikTok has been plagued by allegations that, due to its Chinese ownership, user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or be used to push narratives favourable to the country's leaders.
The Guardian claimed in 2019 that TikTok instructed its moderators to restrict videos, including references to Tiananmen Square and unfavourable pictures of the Chinese government. The site claims that it has improved its moderating processes since then.
ByteDance revealed in December that it fired four employees in the summer of 2016 who accessed data on two journalists and persons related to them while investigating the source of a leaked article about the company.
TikTok, for its part, has attempted to disassociate itself from its Chinese origins by claiming that global institutional investors like Carlyle Group control 60% of ByteDance.
Chew stated, "Ownership is not important to addressing these issues."
China has also declared its opposition to any US attempts to compel ByteDance to sell the application.
Thursday, when the Energy and Commerce Committee questioned Chew, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was questioned by a different committee about the threat posed by TikTok. Blinken responded, "I believe it poses a security risk to the United States", in response to a question from Colorado Republican Ken Buck.
Should a threat to the security of the United States not be prohibited? Buck answered.
"It should be ended in some fashion. But, there are numerous approaches," Blinken responded.
TikTok has been attempting to sell regulators on Project Texas, a $1.5 billion scheme that transfers all US user data to Oracle to escape a ban. Access to US data is managed by US personnel through a separate business named TikTok US Data Security, which is operated separately from ByteDance and overseen by external observers.
As of October, all new user data for the United States was stored domestically. This month, the company began destroying all historical US customer data from non-Oracle systems, a procedure scheduled to be finished this year, according to Chew.
Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican, stated that regardless of what the company does to assure lawmakers that it will protect US user data, the Chinese government can still exert significant influence over its parent company and require it to hand over data under its national security laws.
Congress, the White House, the United States Armed Forces, and over half of US states have banned the app's usage on government devices.
Yet, erasing any data tracking related to the platform may prove challenging. In research released this month, the cybersecurity firm Feroot stated that tracking pixels from ByteDance, which collect user data, was discovered on the websites of 30 US states.
Several nations, including Denmark, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the European Union, have already prohibited TikTok on government-issued smartphones.
A total ban on TikTok in the United States would risk political and public outrage.
On Wednesday, the firm dispatched hundreds of popular TikTokers to Capitol Hill to argue for the platform's continued existence. Dozens of civil rights and free speech organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and PEN America, have signed a petition opposing a total ban on TikTok, stating that it would establish a "dangerous precedent for the limitation of communication."