In his first appearance before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by lawmakers who expressed deep skepticism about his company’s attempts to protect US user data and ease concerns about its ties to China.
It was a rare chance for the public to hear from the Chew, who offers very few interviews. Yet his company’s app is among the most popular in America, with more than 150 million active users.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Thursday’s hearing.
The hearing, which lasted for more than five hours, kicked off with calls from a lawmaker to ban the app in the United States and remained combative throughout. It offered a vivid display of the bipartisan push to crack down on the popular short-form video app and the company’s uphill battle to improve relations with Washington.
Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened Thursday’s hearing by telling Shou: “Your platform should be banned.”
Chew used his testimony to stress TikTok’s independence from China and play up its US ties. “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China, we’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today,” he said in his opening remarks.
“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.”
TikTok doesn’t operate in China. But since the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, the theory goes that ByteDance, and thus indirectly, TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data.
Much of Chew’s attempts to stress that his company is not an arm of the Chinese government appeared to fall on deaf ears. Numerous members of Congress interrupted the chief executive’s testimony to say they simply don’t believe him.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Rep. McMorris Rodgers.
In an exchange with California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, Chew talked up TikTok’s ongoing efforts to protect US user data and said he has “seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it.”
“I find that actually preposterous,” Eshoo fired back.
“I have looked in — and I have seen no evidence of this happening,” Chew responded. “Our commitment is to move their data into the United States, to be stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel. So the risk would be similar to any government going to an American company, asking for data.”