TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew fiercely denied the popular video-sharing app poses a risk to national security or is a threat to underage users during a tense hearing in Washington on Thursday.
Chew waffled between defiance and contrition in his first appearance on Capitol Hill as lawmakers pressed him for answers on TikTok’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The packed hearing began with scathing remarks from House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who immediately expressed her support for a TikTok ban while blasting the platform’s links to the CCP.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” McMorris Rodgers said.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance, and more
manipulation. Your platform should be banned,” she added.
The chair also alleged that TikTok has “repeatedly been caught in the lie that it does not answer to the CCP through ByteDance,” the platform’s parent company.
Chew’s closely-watched appearance comes as lawmakers from both parties push for a nationwide ban on TikTok due to national security concerns. Critics have alleged that China can use the platform to snoop on the more than 150 million users in the US.
The TikTok boss faced tough direct questioning about harmful content on the platform and its effects on underage users – including online trends linked to the injuries and deaths of users.
Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) played a TikTok video showing a gun firing with the caption “Me asf at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 03/23/2023.” McMorris Rodgers was tagged in the video.
Cammack alleged the video was published before the hearing was publicly announced and that it has been online for 41 days without action from TikTok.
“It is a direct threat to the chairwoman of this committee, the people in this room, and yet it still remains on the platform,” Cammack said. “You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintain the data security of 150 million Americans when you can’t even protect the people in this room?”
Chew asked to respond to the video but was cut off by the chairwoman.
In another powerful exchange, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) confronted Chew about harmful content related to suicide.
Bilirakis referenced the case of 16-year-old Chase Nasca, who died by suicide last year after allegedly being exposed to TikTok videos promoting suicide.
Nasca’s parents, who have filed a wrongful death suit against ByteDance, were present at the hearing and grew emotional as Bilirakis played similar videos for attendees.
“Mr. Chew, your company destroyed their lives,” Bilirakis said.
Chew described Nasca’s death as “devastating” and “tragic.”
“We do take these issues very seriously and we do provide resources for anybody that types in anything suicide-related,” Chew added.
Earlier Thursday, China said it would “firmly oppose” calls for TikTok parent ByteDance to divest its ownership stakes or be banned in the US – a declaration that raised fresh concern about Beijing’s role in the company.
Chew said he takes the US government’s concerns about national security “very, very seriously” and was committed to keeping its content “free from any manipulation from any government.”
“I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data,” Chew said during the hearing. “They have never asked us, we have not provided. I have seen no evidence of this happening.”
The TikTok CEO touted his company’s $1.5 billion effort to protect and store US user data on American soil through a partnership with Oracle – an initiative known internally as “Project Texas.”
TikTok is willing to offer “third-party monitoring of our source code” to reassure lawmakers, Chew added.
“There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform and we know we have a responsibility to protect them,” Chew said.
Chew irritated lawmakers from both parties with evasive responses to some questions – often declining to answer “yes or no” queries or telling lawmakers he would need to follow up with a written response after the hearing.
Chew’s assurances about US data protection practices failed to convince lawmakers.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), was among those who argued TikTok’s partnership with Oracle was not a real solution to privacy concerns.
“I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” Pallone said. “This idea, this ‘Project Texas’ is simply not acceptable.”
Officials from the US Committee on Foreign Investment — an interagency task force that assesses potential national security risks in business deals — recently issued a demand that ByteDance executives sell their stakes in TikTok or face a ban.
Chew and other TikTok officials have argued divestment is not a solution to questions about potential national security risks.
Former President Donald Trump pursued a ban on TikTok in 2020, but the effort was eventually struck down in federal court.
This is a breaking story. Check back for updates.