WASHINGTON — The CEO of the viral video app TikTok came to Capitol Hill Thursday and endured a rare bipartisan grilling from lawmakers weighing whether to ban the app in the U.S.
Shou Zi Chew testified for the first time in front of lawmakers on the social media giant’s data security and user safety — issues that lawmakers from both parties have warned could lead to a ban on the popular app.
“TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist Party uses this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
Chew, a 40-year-old Singapore native, argued the highly popular vertical video app should remain accessible to Americans, touting user privacy protections and a firewall against foreign interference.
“There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform, and we know we have a responsibility to protect them,” Chew told the committee.
Chew used his testimony to distance TikTok from its Chinese origins and argue that the app is deeply American. The platform’s parent company, ByteDance, was founded in 2012 by Chinese entrepreneurs in Beijing, leading lawmakers to accuse TikTok of giving the Chinese government access to U.S. user data. The Chinese government exerts control over private companies in the country.
Part of Chew’s efforts to Americanize the company includes selling officials on a $1.5 billion plan called Project Texas, which the CEO said routes all user data in the U.S. to domestic servers owned by software company Oracle. All new U.S. user data is being stored inside the country as of October, Chew said, and TikTok began deleting historic user data from non-Oracle servers this month.
“The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” Chew said.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration reportedly threatened to ban TikTok, without congressional action, if ByteDance refuses to sell it off.
The hearing represented a rare instance of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers from both parties blasting the company. Republicans emphasized the need for a ban, while Democrats suggested they favored a more comprehensive approach toward protecting consumers, especially younger ones, from social media harm.
But Democrats were no less hostile than their Republican counterparts with regard to TikTok’s bad effects on younger users’ mental health or the possibility China could wield the app against the U.S.
“Disinformation campaigns could be launched by the Chinese Communist government through TikTok, which has already become rife with misinformation and disinformation, illegal activities, and hate speech,” the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), said in his opening statement.
Lawmakers highlighted ByteDance’s connection to the Chinese government, asking, for instance, whether Chew had routine contact with ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo, which Chew said he did.
TikTok is already banned from government-issued devices in several Western countries, including Denmark, Canada and the European Union. In the U.S., the app is banned from official devices by the federal government, Congress, the military and over half the states due to cybersecurity concerns.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, TikTok bused a cadre of the app’s popular influencers to Washington, where they made videos in the Capitol and lobbied against a ban. In a press conference with the influencers, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said lawmakers are creating “hysteria” by targeting TikTok when Americans use many other Chinese-owned applications.
But the company’s recruitment of American users to lobby against a ban — which included a video of Chew himself asking users what they wanted him to tell lawmakers — backfired with committee member Bob Latta (R-Ohio).
“Earlier this week, you posted a TikTok video asking American users to mobilize in support of your app and oppose the potential U.S. government action to ban TikTok from the United States,” Latta said. “Based on the established relationship between your company and the Chinese Communist Party, it’s impossible for me to conclude that the video is anything different than the type of propaganda that the CCP requires Chinese companies to push on its citizens.”