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TikTok CEO to face skeptical lawmakers in testimony Thursday

Chew expected to note the 150 million Americans who use the app

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said TikTok 'knowingly allowed' Beijing to access Americans' data.
House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said TikTok 'knowingly allowed' Beijing to access Americans' data. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s challenge when he appears before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday will be to persuade lawmakers that his company isn’t the tech version of the suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down as it flew over the U.S. last month.

The Chinese-owned video-sharing app used daily by about 150 million Americans faces widespread calls either to be shut down or sold to a U.S. company because of fears that Beijing is using it to collect data on Americans and engaging in a subversive propaganda campaign.

Chew is expected to face a barrage of questions from lawmakers of both parties on whether Beijing has access to Americans’ data collected by the app, as well as on dangers faced by kids hooked on an app that lawmakers have likened to opium and fentanyl. Washington’s attitude toward China gives Chew a big hill to climb.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., has said that TikTok “knowingly allowed” Beijing to access Americans’ data. The hearing will focus on TikTok’s actions to safeguard data privacy and prevent harm to kids who consume content on the social media app, Rodgers says. 

“Politicians need a poster child for their anti-China campaign and TikTok has provided a convenient target,” said Darrell M. West, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. 

Chew will try to address lawmakers’ concerns by discussing steps TikTok has taken relating to “minor safety, data privacy and security, real-world harms from online activities, and the risk of foreign content manipulation,” according to his prepared remarks already made public.

Chew also released a short video on the app, noting “almost half of the U.S.” is on the app, including as many as “5 million U.S. businesses,” and that calls by lawmakers to ban the app would mean “this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.” TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

Lawmakers and the administration are nevertheless offering legislation targeting the app.  

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has referred to TikTok as a “spy balloon” that has made its way to the phones of millions of Americans. He introduced a bill that would allow the Biden administration to ban TikTok in the U.S. The committee approved it 24-16 on March 1.

“If it’s too dangerous to be on our phones as members of Congress, in my judgment, it’s too dangerous to be on our children’s phones,” he said, referring to the ban in place on the use of TikTok on federal devices. 

Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced a bill that would authorize the Commerce Department to identify and block any technology from China or other adversary that poses a national security risk.  The bill has 19 co-sponsors from both parties and the backing of the White House.

Lawmakers are blunt about their attitude ahead of Chew’s appearance.

“TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations, and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees, including Mr. Chew,” Warner said in a statement. “Congress needs to give the administration the tools to review and mitigate the harms posed by foreign technology products that come from adversarial nations.”

Lawmakers including Reps. Mary Miller, R-Ill., Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., and Troy Nehls, R-Texas, plan to hold a news conference Thursday along with a group called Moms Against TikTok and call for a ban of the app. 

TikTok does have supporters. 

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., held an event outside the Capitol on Wednesday after meeting with more than two dozen TikTok users and content creators in his office. He said the app was being targeted because of a “red scare around China.” Bowman said several U.S. companies also collected data on Americans but had never faced similar censure from lawmakers.

Facebook in particular “looked the other way and allowed Russia to interfere with our 2016 election,” he said.

“I didn’t hear any member of Congress talk about banning Facebook,” Bowman said, adding that Congress should have a “broader and more honest conversation about social media.”

TikTok has offered millions of people a way to connect with each other “that is helpful to their mental health and to their sense of belonging,” he said.

The TikTok exception

Chew is the latest in a long line of tech company CEOs who have appeared before Congress to be grilled. But dozens of such hearings have so far not advanced technology legislation addressing data privacy, algorithms that promote harmful content, content moderation policies, and the role of social media in enabling foreign influence operations aimed at Americans.

But TikTok has been an exception. Republicans’ and Democrats’ willingness to offer legislation is a measure of the U.S. concern about China and TikTok. 

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in July 2020 prohibiting TikTok from the U.S. market along with WeChat, another popular Chinese-owned messaging app, because the apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” Trump approved a deal a few months later that created a separate U.S. entity called TikTok Global in which software maker Oracle Corp. and retailer Walmart Inc. would own 20 percent of the equity.

That deal also required TikTok to submit a proposal to the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, on how it would collect Americans’ data, where it would be housed, and what its security protocols were. The company says it hasn’t heard from CFIUS since it submitted the proposal in summer 2022.

The administration, which is reportedly considering whether to force a sale of the U.S. unit of TikTok, faces two risks. West, at Brookings, said it won’t be easy to find an American buyer for a company valued at about $50 billion and Beijing could retaliate against U.S. companies such as Tesla Inc., Apple Inc. and others that have manufacturing facilities in China.

The U.S., the U.K., Canada, the European Union and India have banned TikTok on government-issued devices. More than two dozen U.S. states also have banned the app on state-issued devices.

Those restrictions resulted from “the ambitious data collection goals of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] and the documented lack of transparency from TikTok,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a March 20 memo outlining topics for Thursday’s hearing.

Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the strategic technologies program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a nationwide TikTok ban may be one way for Congress to deal with the frustration of not being able to pass laws dealing with data collection and privacy.

“Members of Congress can declare a win,” Chin said. “They can say, ‘look, we care about privacy, we banned TikTok,’ and then not do anything else.”

But both Chin and West said action against TikTok won’t address the role of third-party brokers that collect thousands of pieces of data on Americans and sell to any buyer in the world, including in China.

“There are commercial data brokers that buy and sell information, and Chinese authorities could probably purchase, on the open market, even more detailed information about consumers,” West said. 

TikTok’s competitors including Instagram, owned by Meta, and YouTube, owned by Alphabet, would likely stand to benefit if TikTok were to disappear from the U.S. market, Chin also said. 

Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said a ban could also face legal challenges on First Amendment grounds. 

“It would implicate the First Amendment because Americans are using this communications platform on a large scale, to exercise their right to speak freely, and also to receive information,” Gorski said.  

The U.S. could ban communications citing national security reasons, but the government “has to satisfy an extremely high threshold and cannot impose this type of total ban on a platform unless it is the only way to prevent extremely serious, overwhelming, and immediate harm to national security,” Gorski said. “There’s no public evidence of that kind of harm from the kinds of broad categories of data that TikTok collects.”

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