Key takeaways: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies to US Congress

TikTok executive seeks to push back against legislators’ claims that the Chinese-based app poses a national security threat to the US.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has concluded his first public hearing before the United States Congress, where he attempted to dispel concerns over the Chinese-owned app’s ties to the government in Beijing and its alleged inability to stem “harmful” content.

The hearing, which stretched longer than five hours, took place on Thursday in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

It underscored the growing bipartisan support to take action against TikTok, with both Democrats and Republicans on the committee expressing scepticism over the company’s autonomy from the Chinese government.

For his part, Chew sought 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 maintained that the company is taking actions that will surpass industry standards in terms of data protection and transparency.

Here are key takeaways from the hearing:

China’s influence

Legislators repeatedly asked Chew about China’s alleged influence over TikTok, an issue that both Republican committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and ranking Democrat Frank Pallone cited as a source of national security concerns.

Pallone called the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, a “Beijing communist-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.

He added that TikTok does “not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government”.

However, several legislators seized on Chew’s statement that — because the company relies “on global interoperability” — Chinese engineers may still have access to some US data.

Chew dismissed allegations that TikTok posed a national security threat. “I think a lot of risks that are pointed out are hypothetical and theoretical risks,” he said.

Privacy concerns

Chew sought to allay legislators’ concerns about the safety of US user data, outlining an initiative that will assure “American data is stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel”.

The $1.5bn “Project Texas” plan would rely on contracts with the Texas-based tech company Oracle, Chew explained, using a “firewall that seals off protected user data from unauthorised foreign access”.

The project is already active but not yet complete, according to Chew, who said “legacy US data” was still being deleted from old servers in the US and Singapore.

The statements prompted little in the way of reprieve from legislators.

“Please rename your project. Texas is not the appropriate 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.”

Smoking gun?

Legislators also turned to broader social media issues, questioning TikTok’s ability to moderate misinformation, harmful messaging and content that is not age appropriate. Several legislators used their time to show TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves or commit suicide.

Chew responded that TikTok employs 40,000 moderators to track 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 provide access to researchers to “study and monitor our content ecosystem”.

“I don’t think I can sit here and say that we are perfect in doing this,” Chew said. “We do work very hard.”

Still, in one of the most memorable moments of the hearing, Representative Kat Cammack, a Republican, played a TikTok video that showed a gun firing with a threatening message about the ongoing committee hearing. She noted the post had been on the app since February 10.

“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data privacy and security of 150 million Americans when you can’t even protect the people in this room?” she asked.

TikTok removed the video following the remarks.

Denial of Uighur, Tiananmen Square censorship

Chew also denied that TikTok moderators limit posts related to sensitive issues for the Chinese government, including the persecution of China’s Uighur Muslim ethnic minority and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which saw troops firing on peaceful protesters.

“We do not remove that kind of content. TikTok is a place for freedom of expression,” Chew said. “If you use our app, you can go on it expressing content on that topic and many others.”

A 2019 report from the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper cited leaked documents that indicated TikTok had instructed moderators to censor videos mentioning Tiananmen Square, as well as other issues unfavourable to the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, a TikTok executive told the UK Parliament in 2020 that the platform had, in the past, censored content critical of China, particularly related to Uighurs, but that the practice had ceased.

“I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime,” Committee Chair Rodgers responded to Chew.

Extending across the aisle

One thing was clear during Thursday’s hearing: Chew — who was the chief financial officer of ByteDance before becoming CEO of TikTok in 2021 — won few hearts among the bipartisan committee.

“I gotta hand it to you,” said Representative Pfluger. “You’ve actually done something that in the last three to four years has not happened except for the exception of maybe Vladimir Putin. You have unified Republicans and Democrats”

Said Representative Buddy Carter: “Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress.”

Source: Al Jazeera