TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before Congress for the first time on Thursday, facing some of his app’s most dogged opponents in an attempt to mitigate a nationwide ban attempt.
For more than three years, TikTok has been operating under the threat of a potential ban in the US. Now, with more than 150 million American users, the threats have escalated into legislation and an ultimatum from the Biden administration. Thursday’s hearing with the GOP-led House Committee on Energy and Commerce could be Chew and TikTok’s last shot at convincing lawmakers that the app is safe.
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made,” Chew wrote in his opening statement. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.” Like other hearings, you’ll be able to stream the TikTok questioning at 10AM ET on the Energy and Commerce Committee website, where you’ll find Chew’s testimony as well.
TikTok is facing criticism across the political spectrum, with both Republicans and Democrats warning it’s a national security threat. The company, a subsidiary of Chinese titan ByteDance, has tried to reassure legislators that it’s walled off from foreign political influence. That particularly includes demands to hand over American user data to the Chinese government. So far, there’s little hard evidence it’s doing so — but also few ways for TikTok to prove it couldn’t happen given the government’s tight rein over tech companies inside the country. The same goes for complaints that China might harness TikTok’s recommendation system to push propaganda.
“TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations, and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees.”
And it does look like TikTok has made dubious individual decisions. Last week, we learned the Department of Justice was investigating allegations that TikTok spied on journalists with its app — something that American tech companies have allegedly done, too, but that certainly doesn’t help its case. Previous reports indicate TikTok has suppressed controversial political topics that include references to Tiananmen Square, although it’s said it retired those guidelines well before the current push to ban it. In general, TikTok faces many of the same criticisms other tech social networks do, from disinformation to pushing harmful material to minors. The difference is that TikTok can be targeted by sanctions in a way that, say, the California-based Meta can’t.
So it’s not clear TikTok will be able to do much to placate members of Congress. “While I appreciate Mr. Chew’s willingness to answer questions before Congress, 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,” Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a statement Wednesday. For today’s hearing, in particular, we’re expecting a lot of grandstanding for the cameras, rather than questions that will reveal much about TikTok’s operations.
A TikTok ban was once almost entirely on the table among Republicans — then-president Donald Trump issued one in 2020, although his administration decisively failed to make it happen. But in the past few months, President Joe Biden and other Democrats have taken aim at the app, too, despite its efforts to placate politicians with a plan called Project Texas, which would involve moving all of its user data to the US under the eye of American company Oracle. The rhetoric against it intensified after the discovery of possible Chinese spy balloons strained US-China relations, and at this point, Biden is reportedly demanding ByteDance sell the app or face a ban.
In spite of this, the company has some defenders. Hours before Thursday’s hearing, a group of Democratic lawmakers, led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), held a press conference with more than two dozen TikTok creators in support of TikTok. It was one of the first times lawmakers came out opposing a ban, touting the app’s benefits for small businesses and content creators.
Rather than banning TikTok, Bowman and the creators, who were flown in by TikTok, demanded Congress focus on passing comprehensive data privacy legislation.
“You can ban TikTok but there are still data brokers that sell our data to other countries and businesses in other countries. They sell to the highest bidder,” Bowman said outside the Capitol Wednesday.