Torrid time for TikTok CEO, as Shou Zi Chew endured brutal questioning by US lawmakers over national security concerns
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will be feeling battered on Friday morning, after enduring five hours of bruising and relentless questioning during his US congressional hearing on Thursday.
Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers took the TikTok CEO to task in a brutal manner over security and content concerns on the short-video sharing platform.
Ahead of his scheduled appearance before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, Shou Zi Chew had made clear that TikTok had never, and would never, share US user data with the Chinese government.
He added that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity.
However it could be argued that Shou Zi Chew is fighting for the very survival of TikTok in the US, as American lawmakers prepare a bill that could ban the social media platform entirely from the United States on national security grounds.
TikTok is used by more than 150 million Americans, but that nationwide ban of TikTok in the United States seems increasingly likely, after the White House recently added its backing to the bill from a bipartisan group of a dozen US senators.
Into this hostile environment, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew faced US lawmakers on Thursday. These are some of the key criticisms that Chew faced at the landmark hearing:
Committee members focused heavily on TikTok’s ownership by Beijing-based ByteDance, as well as its executives, which committee members alleged have links to the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok’s CEO was asked pointedly if the firm was a Chinese company, to which Chew said it was headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles.
Committee members were dismissive of TikTok spending more than $1.5 billion on its data security efforts codenamed “Project Texas”.
TikTok has pledged to relocate all US user data to American servers, and also allow US tech firm Oracle to scrutinize TikTok’s source code and act as a third-party monitor.
However US lawmakers felt that Project Texas did not offer sufficient protection against Chinese laws that require companies to make user data accessible to Chinese intelligence services.
Youth safety, mental health:
Another frequent focus from US lawmakers was the safety of TikTok’s young users, and it is fair to say that TikTok is widely used by this demographic.
Lawmakers cited reports of drug-related content, eating disorder videos on the app. Chew said such content violates TikTok policy and those videos are removed when identified.
United Republicans and Democrats:
Committee members from both parties were equally hostile to TikTok.
One member congratulated Chew, saying that TikTok had managed to unite both Democrats and Republicans lawmakers – a feat not managed since Vladimir Putin.
ByteDance engineers in China access to US data:
As Project Texas is not fully operational until the end of the year, Chew confirmed that ByteDance engineers in China currently have access to US data.
This admission alarmed US lawmakers, who pointed out if US data can be accessed by engineers in China, it was hard to see how the Chinese government couldn’t also have access it.
The TikTok CEO failed in his attempt is attempt to distance TikTok from ByteDance, and matters were not helped as Chew himself used to be ByteDance’s chief financial officer.
Under pressure, Chew also eventually admitted he owned shares in ByteDance.
While Chew was on the receiving end for most of the five hour hearing, he did land some counter punches.
The most notable was when he was quizzed on TikTok’s use of user data.
He replied “With all due respect, American companies don’t have a great track record with data … Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”
China to oppose sale
Meanwhile CNN reported that China has said it would “firmly oppose” any forced sale of TikTok – in its first direct response to demands by the Biden administration that the app’s Chinese owners sell their share of the company or face a ban in its most important market.
It recently emerged that ByteDance is being urged to divest itself from TikTok, to help address US national security concerns.
The short-form video app is undergoing a national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). But this CFIUS review has stalled, despite Project Texas.
Members of CFIUS from the Justice Department have apparently been unwilling to accept TikTok’s data protection proposals.
A last resort would be a divestiture (sale or IPO), but according to CNN, China’s commerce ministry said Thursday that a forced sale of TikTok would “seriously damage” global investors’ confidence in the United States.
“If the news [about a forced sale] is true, China will firmly oppose it,” Shu Jueting, a spokeswoman for the ministry, told a Thursday news conference in Beijing, adding that any potential deal would need approval from the Chinese government.
“The sale or divestiture of TikTok involves technology export, and administrative licensing procedures must be performed in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations,” she said. “The Chinese government will make a decision in accordance with the law.”
It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government will exercise veto power on any sale or divestiture.