Lawmakers from both political parties joined forces on Thursday during a committee hearing where TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified on ways his company plans to address recent security concerns raised about the social media app.
Criticisms surrounding TikTok were notably bipartisan as House Energy and Commerce Committee members from both parties expressed various concerns about the app and its Chinese-based owner, including national security threats, data privacy, the spread of misinformation and the safety for minors.
“Mr. Chew, welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.).
“We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security,” he said. “We care about our economy, and we sure as heck care about our children.”
Chew, who was grilled and often interrupted by lawmakers, attempted to convince them that the app was overall safe and that the company was taking proactive steps to address the concerns raised.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns,” Chew said in his opening statement. “We have addressed them with real action.”
Lawmakers skeptical of Project Texas
To address some of the concerns, TikTok designed a plan, known as Project Texas, in which American data would be routed and stored with Oracle, a Texas-based software company. Chew said his company has invested $1.5 billion to build the project.
This was done to address some of the national security concerns surrounding the Chinese government’s ability to request and access American data. U.S. lawmakers have said that since TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese-based company, it could be subject to Chinese laws on handing over U.S. data.
Despite the implementation of Project Texas, lawmakers said they’re not buying it.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Chew he doubts the project will fix the issues raised.
“I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do, and so this idea of Project Texas is simply not acceptable,” he said.
Chew claims China has not requested access to U.S. data
While being questioned by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Chew said he was not aware of a situation where the Chinese government had requested his company to obtain U.S. data.
“I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data,” Chew said. “They have never asked us, and we have not provided it.”
Eshoo found his answer problematic and called it “preposterous,” adding that she doesn’t “believe that there is really a private sector in China.”
Her comments echoed concerns raised by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said earlier this month that the line between the private and the public sector in China is “nonexistent.”
Committee worried about protecting children’s safety
Committee members also pressed Chew on children’s safety on the platform based on concerns that young users are being exposed to dangerous “challenges” and posts emphasizing self-harm and suicide.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) said TikTok’s algorithms have prioritized recommending “harmful content” directly to children. He noted that Italy has launched an investigation following the spread of the “French scar” challenge in which users intentionally make marks on their faces.
He also mentioned an example of a 16-year-old boy from New York who died last year by suicide through stepping in front of a train. The boy’s “For You” page on the app revealed a wide range of content promoting suicide.
“It is unacceptable, sir, that even after knowing all these dangers, you still claim that TikTok is something grand to behold,” Bilirakis told Chew.
Chew said hearing about the boy’s case is “devastating.” He said the company takes these types of concerns seriously and provides resources to any user who searches for content on topics like suicide.
Carter also referred to several “challenges” that some users on TikTok do in which they could potentially harm themselves. One of the challenges is called the “blackout challenge,” in which a user holds their breath as long as they can until they lose consciousness.
“Why is it that TikTok consistently fails to identify and moderate these kinds of harmful videos?” Carter asked.
Chew said preventing the spread of young users doing dangerous challenges is a difficulty facing the entire social media industry.
Chew shies away from picking sides
The CEO refrained from giving his position on whether ByteDance should completely divest from TikTok and sell its stake to an American company, emphasizing that ownership isn’t the issue.
“It is not about ownership,” he said. “It is a lot about making sure we have Project Texas, making sure that we’re protecting and firewalling U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access, giving third parties [permission] to come in to have a look at this and making sure that everybody is comfortable.”
Chew was also asked whether he agreed with recent statements made by the Chinese government opposing the idea of selling TikTok.
Chew said he couldn’t speak on behalf of the Chinese government and directed him to the work they’re doing in regards to Project Texas.
Chinese officials on Thursday said that they would “resolutely oppose” the forced sale of the social media platform following requests from the Biden administration to sell its stake to a U.S. based company.
“If the news is true, China will resolutely oppose it,” Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Shu Jueting said in a statement on Thursday.
Shu added that a potential forced sale of TikTok “would seriously damage investors from multiple countries including China” and hurt the country’s “confidence to invest in the United States.”