The chief executive of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, was forced to defend his company’s relationship with China, as well as the protections for its youngest users, at a testy congressional hearing on Thursday that came amid a bipartisan push to ban the app entirely in the US over national security concerns.
The hearing marked the first ever appearance before US lawmakers by a TikTok chief executive, and a rare public outing for the 4o-year-old Chew, who has remained largely out of the limelight as the social network’s popularity soars. TikTok now boasts tens of millions of US users, but lawmakers have long held concerns over China’s control over the app, which Chew repeatedly tried to assuage throughout the hearing. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said in Thursday’s testimony.
Questioning got off to a forceful start with members of the committee hammering Chew on his connection to executives at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, who lawmakers say have ties to the Chinese Communist party. The committee members asked how frequently Chew was in contact with them, and questioned whether the company’s proposed solutions to US data security concerns would offer sufficient protection against Chinese laws that require companies to make user data accessible to the government.
Chew’s claims of independence from the Chinese government were undermined by a Wall Street Journal story published just hours before the hearing that said China would strongly oppose any forced sale of the company. Responding for the first time to Joe Biden’s threat of a national ban unless ByteDance sells its shares, the Chinese commerce ministry said such a move would involve exporting technology from China and thus would have to be approved by the Chinese government.
Lawmakers also questioned Chew, a former Goldman Sachs banker who has helmed the company since March 2021, over the platform’s impact on mental health, particularly of its young users. The Republican congressman Gus Bilirakis shared the story of Chase Nasca, a 16-year-old boy who killed himself a year ago by stepping in front of a train. Nasca’s parents, who have sued ByteDance, claiming Chase was “targeted” with unsolicited self-harm content, appeared at the hearing and grew emotional as Bilirakis told their son’s story.
“I want to thank his parents for being here today, and allowing us to show this,” Bilirakis said. “Mr Chew, your company destroyed their lives.”
Driving home concerns about young users, congresswoman Nanette Barragán asked Chew about reports that he does not let his own children use the app.
“At what age do you think it would be appropriate for a young person to get on TikTok?” she said.
Chew confirmed his own children were not on TikTok but said that was because in Singapore, where they live, there is not a version of the platform for users under the age of 13.
Chew, who has kept a relatively low-profile during his two years as CEO, spent much of the five-hour hearing stressing TikTok’s distance from the Chinese government, kicking off his testimony with an emphasis on his own Singaporean heritage. Chew talked about Project Texas – an effort to move all US data to domestic servers – and said the company was deleting all US user data that is backed up to servers outside of the country by the end of the year.
Some legislators expressed skepticism that Project Texas was too large an undertaking and would not tackle concerns about US data privacy soon enough. “I am concerned that what you’re proposing with Project Texas just doesn’t have the technical capability of providing us the assurances that we need,” the California Republican Jay Obernolte, a software engineer, said.
At one point, Tony Cárdenas, a Democrat from California, asked Chew outright if TikTok is a Chinese company. Chew responded that TikTok is global in nature, not available in mainland China, and headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles.
Neal Dunn, a Republican from Florida, asked with similar bluntness whether ByteDance has “spied on American citizens” – a question that came amid reports the company had accessed journalists’ information in an attempt to identify which employees leaked information. Chew responded that “spying is not the right way to describe it”.
The hearing comes three years after TikTok was formally targeted by the Trump administration with an executive order prohibiting US companies from doing business with ByteDance. Biden revoked that order in June 2021, under the stipulation that the US committee on foreign investment conduct a review of the company. When that review stalled, Biden demanded TikTok sell its Chinese-owned shares or face a ban in the US.
This bipartisan nature of the backlash was remarked upon several times during the hearing, with Cárdenas pointing out that Chew “has been one of the few people to unite this committee”.
Chew’s testimony, some lawmakers said, was reminiscent of Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in an April 2018 hearing to answer for his own platform’s data-privacy issues – answers many lawmakers were unsatisfied with. Cárdenas said: “We are frustrated with TikTok … and yes, you keep mentioning that there are industry issues that not only TikTok faces but others. You remind me a lot of [Mark] Zuckerberg … when he came here, I said he reminds me of Fred Astaire: a good dancer with words. And you are doing the same today. A lot of your answers are a bit nebulous, they’re not yes or no.”
Chew warned users in a video posted to TikTok earlier in the week that the company was at a “pivotal moment”.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” he said, adding that the app now has more than 150 million active monthly US users. “That’s almost half the US coming to TikTok.”
TikTok has battled legislative headwinds since its meteoric rise began in 2018. Today, a majority of teens in the US say they use TikTok – with 67% of people ages 13 to 17 saying they have used the app and 16% of that age group saying they use it “almost constantly”, according to the Pew Research Center.
This has raised a number of concerns about the app’s impact on young users’ safety, with self-harm and eating disorder-related content spreading on the platform. TikTok is also facing lawsuits over deadly “challenges” that have gone viral on the app. TikTok has introduced features in response to such criticisms, including automatic time limits for users under 18.
Some tech critics have said that while TikTok’s data collection does raise concerns, its practices are not much different from those of other big tech firms.
“Holding TikTok and China accountable are steps in the right direction, but doing so without holding other platforms accountable is simply not enough,” said the Tech Oversight Project, a technology policy advocacy organization, in a statement.
“Lawmakers and regulators should use this week’s hearing as an opportunity to re-engage with civil society organizations, NGOs, academics and activists to squash all of big tech’s harmful practices.”