TikTok hearing: CEO Shou Chew to testify before Congress for the first time

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CNN
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TikTok CEO Shou Chew made his first appearance before Congress on Thursday and was immediately hit by fierce criticism from lawmakers, including calls for the app to be banned.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened Thursday’s hearing by tearing into TikTok, and telling Shou: “Your platform should be banned.”

“I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome,” she continued. “We aren’t buying it. In fact, when you celebrate the 150 million American users on TikTok, it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act. That is 150 million Americans that the [Chinese Communist Party] can collect sensitive information on.”

In his opening remarks, Chew attempted to stress TikTok’s independence from China and played up its US ties. “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China, we’re headquarterd in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today,” he said.

“Still, we have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem,” Chew said. “Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action.

As lawmakers doubled down on their questions about TikTok’s data collection practices, Chew also emphasized that the data TikTok collects is data “that’s frequently collected by many other companies in our industry.”

“We are committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect,” Chew said. “I don’t believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry.”

Multiple lawmakers have also highlighted concerns about TikTok’s impact on children. Democratic ranking member of the committee Rep. Frank Pallone, for example, said Thursday: “Research has found that TikTok’s algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.”

In his prepared remarks, Chew is expected to issue broad promises to protect US user data, to keep teens safe and to remain free from any government influence. “Let me state this unequivocally,” Chew will say, according to a copy of his remarks released by a House panel. “ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”

His written remarks also defend ByteDance’s corporate structure and outlines steps the company has taken, and plans to take, to resolve fears the Chinese government could gain access to TikTok user data through its potential influence over ByteDance. Among those steps is a vow to “firewall” US user data from “unauthorized foreign access.”

Chew’s moment in the hot seat comes as some lawmakers are renewing calls for the app to be banned in the United States due to perceived national security concerns because of its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. TikTok acknowledged to CNN last week that federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app. A number of countries, including the US, have already instituted a ban of the app on government devices due to the security concerns.

With his appearance, Chew may hope to temper the heated rhetoric in Washington about the app – but to do so, he must confront a tremendous amount of skepticism from lawmakers about TikTok, and himself.

“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,” Sen. Mark R. Warner, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement Wednesday.

As scrutiny from lawmakers’ mounts, however, so does the app’s popularity and reach in the United States. Just this week, Chew released a TikTok video where he announced the app has amassed more than 150 million US users, or “almost half the US,” as he put it. TikTok was the top downloaded app in the United States in 2021 and 2022, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower.

In the months leading up to his appearance on Capitol Hill, Chew, who rarely gave interviews previously, has gone on a media tour in the United States. He’s met with lawmakers and given a number of interviews and public remarks aimed at saving the app in the US. His overarching message: TikTok has become essential to American culture, and to the creators and small business owners who now rely on the app for their livelihoods.

On the eve of the hearing, dozens of TikTok creators who oppose a ban held an impassioned press conference on Capitol grounds with Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York. TikTok flew out some of the creators, the company confirmed to CNN. The creators discussed how they found community and built businesses on the app, and what they would lose if the app was taken away.

“We do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150 million Americans and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem,” Chew will tell lawmakers, according to the prepared remarks.

Chew is also expected to say on Thursday say TikTok also supports legislation to create a national data privacy law affecting all US businesses, as well as potential updates to a child-specific privacy law known as COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. His written testimony also outlines TikTok’s moves to keep users safe with content moderation, highlighting that the company spent $1 billion in 2021 on trust and safety and reflecting TikTok’s largest US labor expense.

– CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.

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