A U.S. House panel grilled TikTok’s CEO for more than five hours Thursday over the social media giant’s ties to China, and indicated there may be bipartisan consensus for a national ban on the platform.
Members of both parties showed an unusual level of agreement during tough questioning of TikTok CEO Shou Chew. Several members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican, said they supported banning the platform.
“Your platform should be banned,” Rodgers said in the hearing’s opening minutes.
“I agree with much of what you just said,” ranking Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey told Rodgers moments later.
Pallone said in a Fox News interview Wednesday night that he hadn’t decided if TikTok, a subsidiary of China-based ByteDance Ltd., should be banned but “it’s certainly something we’d have to consider.”
More than 150 million people in the United States use TikTok on a monthly basis, Chew said. That accounts for about 10% of the platform’s global users and 25% of worldwide views.
Chew promotes migration to U.S. servers
In his first appearance before a congressional committee, Chew emphasized his international background, telling the panel he met his Virginia-born wife at business school in the U.S. and that he and his family live in his home country of Singapore.
Early in the hearing, Chew also promoted an initiative by TikTok to migrate its data storage from Chinese servers to the United States. Dubbed Project Texas because it uses Austin-based Oracle’s servers, Chew repeatedly said U.S. user information would be stored on U.S. soil, overseen by U.S. personnel employed by a separate U.S.-based company.
TikTok itself is headquarted in Singapore and Los Angeles, Chew repeated throughout the hearing.
“All protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team,” he said. “This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law.”
Chew said the company did not remove content at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party, even when asked specifically if TikTok had removed content related to China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population and the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Efforts to separate TikTok from China rejected
But lawmakers dismissed Chew’s repeated attempts to distance the platform from China and its ruling Communist Party.
ByteDance, like all Chinese companies, is beholden to the Chinese government and must turn over records and data on command, they said. Those concerns separated TikTok from other, mostly U.S-based, social media platforms that collect extensive data from users.
“I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” Pallone told Chew. “This idea, this Project Texas, is simply not acceptable.”
The U.S. Senate sponsors of a bill to effectively ban TikTok, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and South Dakota Republican John Thune, said in a statement shortly after the House hearing adjourned that they were unmoved by Chew’s appearance.
“All Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services,” Warner and Thune said. “Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns.”
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter criticized the panel’s “political grandstanding” in a statement to States Newsroom after the hearing.
“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas,” she wrote.
First Amendment concerns
Chew characterized TikTok as a platform that encouraged creativity and free expression.
“TikTok will remain a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” Chew said.
Though none spoke up at the Energy and Commerce hearing, some progressive Democrats and outside groups have expressed uneasiness with a government ban of a private service, especially one used to share and consume media.
“Our First Amendment gives us the right to speak freely and communicate freely,” New York progressive Democrat U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman said at a Wednesday press conference. “TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting.”
“This TikTok hearing is giving me major (McCarthyism)/Red scare vibes,” American Civil Liberties Union senior policy counsel Jenna Leventoff tweeted Thursday. “I don’t think history will look favorably upon this as a justification for violating the First Amendment.”
Lawmakers also raised issues with the videos that appear on TikTok and the company’s ability to control them. Members said the platform includes videos encouraging violence, suicide, eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors, noting that ads are targeted to users as young as 13.
Chew said that many of the issues members raised were industry-wide challenges.
“The potential security, privacy, content manipulation concerns raised about TikTok are really not unique to us,” Chew said. “The same issues apply to other companies.”
Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat, agreed that the problems facing TikTok were also common on other platforms and proposed wider regulations across the industry.
“Violence, adult themes, drug and alcohol, sexualization, suicide — all major issues on TikTok,” Soto said. “But also Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms. So the solution as I see it is to regulate TikTok and other social media platforms.”
Threatening video shown
But, with Chew the only witness before them, lawmakers focused at Wednesday’s hearing on TikTok’s shortcomings.
Florida Republican Kat Cammack played a video posted to TikTok weeks before the hearing — and well before the hearing was noticed to the public — showing a gun firing with the words “Me … at the House Energy and Commerce on 3/23/2023” appearing next to it. A caption mentioned Rodgers by name.
“I think that is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are,” she said.
“You couldn’t take action after 41 days when a clear threat, a very violent threat to the chairwoman of this committee and the members of this committee, was posted on your platform,” Cammack said, as her time to question Chew ran out. “You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security … of the 150 million users of your app.”
In an exchange that was repeated among Chew and different members throughout the hearing, Chew asked to respond to Cammack, but Rodgers declined, saying the hearing had to move on.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were aggressive in their questioning of Chew and unusually skeptical of his answers.
At least three members reminded him that it was a federal crime to make false or misleading statements to Congress. Others asked yes or no questions and took Chew’s attempts to answer with more context as a negative.
As the hearing entered its fourth hour, Chew showed his own frustration in an exchange with Florida Republican Neal Dunn.
“You have not given us straightforward answers,” Dunn said. “We don’t find you credible on these things.”
“Congressman, you have given me no time to answer your questions,” Chew responded. “I reject the characterizations.”
Another exchange with Dunn forced a clarification.
Dunn asked if ByteDance had spied on U.S. users on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Chew responded, “No.”
But when Dunn repeated the question, Chew said, “I don’t think spying is the right way to describe it.”
Chew later said the correct answer was a simple “no” and that the pace of questioning had caused confusion.
TikTok’s communications department posted a tweet that highlighted Chew’s initial response.