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Lawmakers reject CEO’s assurance TikTok is autonomous from China

'We aren't buying it,' Rodgers says

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House lawmakers on Thursday voiced disbelief at TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s assurances that the app has no link with China or its Communist Party, and House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers flatly declared that the “platform should be banned.”

Chew, a Singaporean citizen educated in the U.K. and the U.S. and now living in the U.S., became the latest tech company executive to be confronted by lawmakers on data privacy, dangers to kids from excessive use of social media apps, and the potential for foreign governments to influence Americans through such platforms.

In testimony to House Energy and Commerce, Chew repeatedly denied that TikTok, a U.S.-based company headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, is controlled by its China-based parent ByteDance. But those assurances appeared to be weakened when China’s Commerce Ministry on Thursday said it would oppose a forced sale of TikTok, as is being contemplated by the Biden administration, because such a sale would involve the export of Chinese technology.

“I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome,” Rodgers, R-Wash., said of her conclusion that the app should be banned. “Like you’re 100 percent responsible for what TikTok does, that you suddenly endorse the national data privacy standard … that TikTok doesn’t harm our innocent children or that your ties to the Chinese Communist Party through ByteDance is a myth. We aren’t buying it.”

Rodgers said TikTok’s plans to store American users’ data in servers owned and operated by Oracle in Texas was no “more than a marketing scheme.”

TikTok agreed in 2020 to store the data of American users in the U.S. in a deal brokered by the Trump administration involving Oracle  Corp. and Walmart Inc., which together would own 20 percent of the U.S. entity.

Even when TikTok completed its plan to store all U.S. data in the U.S. on Oracle servers, “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the top Democrat on the committee, said.

The Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok is used daily by about 150 million Americans. The app 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 told lawmakers that ByteDance, although a Chinese entity, “is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government.”

ByteDance is a private company with global institutional investors owning 60 percent of its shares, 20 percent owned by the company founder and another 20 percent owned by employees, he said. The company is overseen by a five-person board, three of whom are Americans, Chew said.

Chew said he communicates regularly with Liang Rubo, the CEO of ByteDance.

Pressed by Rodgers on whether Chinese or Communist Party officials play a role in moderating TikTok content aimed at American audiences or promoting aggression toward Taiwan, Chew said, “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government.”

Pallone asked Chew to commit not to sell TikTok users’ data to other companies, stop targeted advertising to users younger than 17, and stop collecting location data without express consent from users. Chew said he backed those ideas in principle and called for a level playing ground with similar rules applying to all social media companies.

Those provisions are embedded in legislation backed by Pallone and Rodgers that was favorably reported by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the last Congress. But it didn’t get a floor vote in the House and didn’t gain broad backing in the Senate.

“We actually do not believe we collect more data than any other social media company out there,” Chew told Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who asked if TikTok was surveilling information on users’ devices, including passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive information.

Several lawmakers pressed Chew about TikTok content on drug trafficking, illegal border crossings, and videos of some users talking about taking their own life.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., played a disturbing TikTok video of a user addicted to painkillers who committed suicide after other users urged the victim to do so, and pressed Chew to take responsibility for such content.

“Do you have full responsibility for the algorithms used to prioritize content to users,” Bilirakis said.

“I’d like to say it’s devastating to hear about this…as a father myself,” Chew said. “We do take these issues seriously, and we do provide resources for those” searching for such content, he said.

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