Washington — TikTok’s chief executive told a House committee Thursday that the social media giant is taking “real action” to address national security concerns from U.S. policymakers as the company seeks to stave off a potential ban in the U.S.
CEO Shou Zi Chew is facing intense questioning in testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, with efforts to ban the widely popular social media app gaining momentum in Washington. The hearing is focused on TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, how the platform affects children, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” or CCP, according to the committee.
U.S. officials and national security experts have warned that TikTok, which has 150 million American users, could be used to spy on Americans or as a propaganda tool by the Chinese government. Advocates for banning the app in the U.S. say that TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, could be forced to share user data with the CCP.
“When you celebrate the 150 million American users on TikTok, it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act,” said GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the committee’s chair. “That is 150 million Americans that CCP can collect sensitive information on, and control what we ultimately see, hear, and believe.”
Thursday’s hearing is TikTok’s highest-profile opportunity to mitigate those national security fears. Chew told the panel that TikTok is building “what amounts to a firewall that seals off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access,” including the establishment of a new corporate entity to oversee the handling of U.S. user data.
“Today, U.S. TikTok data is stored by default in Oracle’s servers. Only vetted personnel operating in a new company, called TikTok U.S. Data Security, can control access to this data. Additionally, we have plans for this company to report to an independent American board with strong security credentials,” Chew said. “The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel.”
Chew assured lawmakers that TikTok’s approach has “never been to dismiss or trivialize” concerns about “unwanted foreign access to U.S. data and potential manipulation of the TikTok U.S. ecosystem.”
TikTok, like many other social media companies, collects users’ personal information, including phone numbers, email addresses, contacts and WiFi networks. ByteDance has said the company does not share information with the Chinese government, but U.S. officials counter that Chinese law requires the company, which is based in Beijing, to make the app’s data available to the CCP.
Chew is trying to downplay ByteDance’s ties to the Chinese government, stressing in his testimony that the parent company has three Americans on its five-member board of directors and is majority-owned by institutional investors from around the world. He noted that TikTok U.S. Data Security is incorporated in the U.S.
Ahead of the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said Congress needs to pass a bill that would give the executive branch tools to take action against tech companies with ties to U.S. adversaries. Warner is part of a group of nearly two dozen senators who have introduced legislation targeting TikTok.
“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,” Warner said in a statement Wednesday.
The Biden administration wants ByteDance to divest itself from the short-form video platform altogether to avoid a TikTok ban in the U.S. A TikTok spokesperson said recently that “divestment doesn’t solve the problem.”
The Justice Department is investigating ByteDance for possible spying on U.S. citizens, including journalists, CBS News confirmed last week. ByteDance said in a statement that it “strongly condemned” the actions of those involved and they were no longer employed by the company.
TikTok is already banned on federal government devices, including military devices, and a growing number of states are banning it on state government devices. Federal lawmakers have introduced several bills that seek to empower the administration to ban TikTok nationwide.
A new CBS News poll found that most Americans say that TikTok’s ties to China pose a security risk, and those who do would like to see the video-sharing app banned in the U.S. But younger people — who are the most likely age group to use it — are also the most opposed to a ban, or to the idea that it is a threat.
Not all lawmakers are supportive of a TikTok ban. Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York organized a press conference Wednesday with dozens of TikTok creators, including small business owners, educators and artists who say the app is vital to their livelihoods.
“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” Bowman said. “As we know, Republicans in particular have been sounding the alarm, creating a red scare around China.”
Bowman said TikTok poses the same concerns as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
“So let’s not marginalize and target TikTok,” he said. “Let’s have a comprehensive conversation about legislation that we need — federal legislation — to make sure that people who use social media platforms are safe and their information is secure and their information is not being shared or sold to third parties.”
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