WASHINGTON: The 150 million US users of TikTok have not received an answer as to whether the app will be removed from their smartphones after nearly six hours of questioning by lawmakers of the CEO of the platform.
In a contentious committee hearing on Thursday, US lawmakers grilled Shou Zi Chew on data security and hazardous content, dismissing his claims that the highly popular video-sharing app prioritises user safety and shouldn’t be outlawed because of its ties to China.
Republican and Democratic senators grilled TikTok about its content moderation procedures, how the business expects to protect American data from Beijing, and its eavesdropping on journalists in a bipartisan effort to curtail the dominance of a major social media platform.
Chew attempted to refute claims that TikTok or its Chinese parent firm, ByteDance, are instruments of the Chinese government during the most of the hearing. But he dodged probing questions regarding China’s abuse of Uyghur human rights and appeared surprised by a TikTok video shown by a lawmaker that called for violence against the House committee holding the hearing.
The 40-year-old Singaporean’s unusual public presence occurs at a pivotal moment for the business. In only a few short years, TikTok’s user base in the US has exploded to 150 million, but its growing popularity is under threat from a potential statewide ban in the US and rising concerns among officials about safeguarding user data from China’s communist government.
Taking on TikTok has symbolic significance for politicians since it has been embroiled in a larger geopolitical conflict between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology. Tensions have also increased as a result of recent balloon politics and China’s connection with Russia.
Republican Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers began the hearing by saying, “Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security.”
TikTok prioritises the security of its young users, according to Chew, who also rejected that TikTok poses a threat to national security in testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He reaffirmed the corporation’s intention to safeguard US user information by putting it on servers run and controlled by the major software company Oracle.
Let me be clear: ByteDance is not a representative of China or any other nation, Chew said.
However, the business has faced criticism that because of its Chinese ownership, user data might get into the hands of the government or be used to advance narratives that support the communist leaders of the nation.
The Guardian claimed in 2019 that TikTok was giving its moderators instructions to restrict any videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square or had imagery that were critical of the Chinese government. The platform claims to have modified its moderating procedures since then.
ByteDance fired four workers in December after it acknowledged that they had accessed data on two journalists and persons related to them last summer while trying to find the source of a leaked report about the company. This raised concerns about the platform.
TikTok has been attempting to disassociate itself from its Chinese roots since it is aware of its weaknesses. It claims that 60% of ByteDance is owned by international institutional investors like the Carlyle Group.
Ownership is not the key to resolving these issues, according to Chew.
But it’s not for a lot of people. To avoid a broad ban, the Biden administration reportedly asked that TikTok’s Chinese owners divest their corporate holdings. China has stated that it will resist those initiatives. At a separate committee hearing on Thursday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated his opinion that TikTok poses a security risk and “should be ended one way or another.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary for the White House, claimed that “everyone was watching” the TikTok hearing that took place there on Thursday. She would not, however, speak to particular steps the administration might take to resolve its TikTok worries.
One of the hearing’s most dramatic moments occurred when Republican Rep. Kat Cammack presented a TikTok video of a shooting gun with the House committee and the precise date before it was formally reported in the caption.
When you can’t even safeguard the people in this room, you expect us to trust that you can keep the data security, privacy, and security of 150 million Americans, Cammack added.
According to TikTok, the firm removed the video and banned the account that posted it on Thursday.
There have long been worries about the nature of the content that Americans see online and how tech corporations get their data. Via a national privacy law, Congress has attempted to limit the amount of customer data that tech corporations gather, but those attempts have been unsuccessful.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and one of the few allies TikTok appears to have on the Hill, stated at a news conference on Wednesday that lawmakers concerned about user protection shouldn’t target TikTok but should instead concentrate on a national law that would protect user data across all social media platforms. The failure of US social media corporations to address the very issues that were being raised against TikTok was also brought up by Chew.
He claimed that American social media corporations have a poor history with user security and data privacy. “As just one illustration, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”
Members of the committee also played a variety of TikTok videos that urged viewers to injure themselves or end their lives. Many people questioned why the Chinese version of the site, Douyin, did not feature the same potentially hazardous content as the US version.
Chew retorted that it depends on the legal framework of the nation in which the software is being used. He claimed that the organisation has an algorithm that flags stuff and roughly 40,000 moderators that monitor hazardous information.
The hearing, according to wealth management company Wedbush, was a “disaster” for TikTok and increased the likelihood of a ban if it doesn’t split from its Chinese parent. A prohibition would benefit TikTok rivals YouTube, Instagram, and Snap, according to Emile El Nems, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, “likely resulting in bigger revenue share of the total advertising wallet.”
In order to escape a ban, TikTok has been pitching officials on Project Texas, a $1.5 billion proposal that sends all US user data to servers owned and maintained by the software behemoth Oracle.
As of October, all fresh user data from the US was kept there. According to Chew, the process of erasing all historical US user data from non-Oracle servers began this month and is anticipated to be finished this year.
Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw pointed out that the Chinese government can still exert enormous influence over the parent firm and demand data disclosure through its national security regulations, regardless of what the corporation does to reassure Congress that it will protect US user data.
The use of the programme on government devices has already been prohibited by Congress, the White House, the US armed forces, and more than half of the US states. Together with the European Union, other nations such as Denmark, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand have all enacted similar prohibitions.
Completely banning TikTok in the US runs the danger of political and public backlash from the platform’s young user base and civil rights organisations.
A statewide ban might be too drastic, according to David Kennedy, a former government intelligence officer and current CEO of the cybersecurity firm TrustedSec. He said he supports limiting TikTok access on government-issued phones.
Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla are all available in China. Will they now begin to forbid us? Kennedy uttered. “It might soon get out of hand.”