U.S. lawmakers interrogated TikTok CEO Shou Chew on Thursday and expressed skepticism about China's inability to access U.S. user data despite Chew's reassurances.
TikTok, a popular social media platform for sharing short videos that is owned by China-based ByteDance, is raising national security concerns. Policymakers shared bipartisan concerns that Chinese laws prohibit companies like TikTok from keeping user data from Chinese officials. Chew, in his first appearance before a congressional hearing held by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, was peppered with questions about the Chinese government's access to TikTok's data.
The U.S. government isn't the only one concerned about China's influence over TikTok. Governments worldwide, including the U.S., Canada, Belgium, European Union, United Kingdom and New Zealand, have already banned TikTok from government devices. Some are calling for a complete ban of the app. Another measure President Biden's administration has sought is for ByteDance to sell TikTok – something China has fought against, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal.
"TikTok has repeatedly been caught in the lie that it does not answer to the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] through ByteDance," said Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., during the hearing. "Today, the CCP's laws require Chinese companies like ByteDance to spy on their behalf. That means any Chinese company must grant the CCP access and manipulation capabilities as a design feature."
In addition to data access concerns, policymakers highlighted instances where harmful content on topics such as suicide, eating disorders and healthcare misinformation spread on TikTok. Chew said this is an issue that goes beyond TikTok and faces every social media company. Whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress in 2021 about the harms Meta's Instagram and Facebook cause teens' mental health.
Given the concerns with data access by the Chinese government through TikTok and harmful content shared on the platform, policymakers called for a federal data privacy law and supported reform to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law protecting social media platforms from liability for content posted on their platforms.
Chew's testimony focuses on TikTok plans to keep U.S. data stateside
To appease policymakers, Chew highlighted Project Texas, an effort by TikTok to move and store U.S. data within software company Oracle, with access controls overseen by U.S. personnel. He said that moving U.S. data into servers held by a U.S. company and building a firewall around the data protects that data from unauthorized foreign access.
Oracle stores U.S. TikTok data, he said during the hearing. "This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law."
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.Chairman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce
Beyond building the firewall around U.S. data, Chew committed at the hearing to providing access to third-party independent monitors, such as Oracle, to assess TikTok's recommendation algorithms. He believes TikTok is the only company offering such transparency.
When asked about content moderation to prevent harmful videos from circulating on TikTok, Chew reiterated the challenge of tracking and taking down user videos. He said the company has policies to take down harmful content but noted he could not say the company is "perfect in this," pointing out that other social media companies struggle with similar issues. Chew called for clear, transparent rules for all social media companies around content and data concerns.
"The potential security, privacy and content manipulation concerns raised about TikTok are not unique to us," he said. "The same issues apply to other companies."
Despite the measures Chew outlined to protect U.S. user data, policymakers -- including Rodgers -- doubted the CEO's ability to protect U.S. data from the Chinese government if ByteDance owns the company.
"I have zero confidence in your assertion that ByteDance and TikTok are not beholden to the CCP," Rodgers said.
Policymakers call for federal data privacy law, Section 230 reform
Addressing problematic data access and the spread of harmful content on social media platforms means Congress needs to enact a federal data privacy standard as well as reassess Section 230 and the liability protection it gives social media platforms, said Committee Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
"I know this is about TikTok, but I am focusing all my attention not only on TikTok but [also] on these wide concerns about social media," Pallone said during the hearing.
Numerous policymakers echoed the sentiment during the hearing. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., described social media platforms as modern-day tobacco and cigarette companies, pointing to how legislation is needed to protect U.S. consumers from harms caused by those companies' products.
As Congress works on these long-term measures, Rodgers said the U.S. must consider more short-term measures, including prohibiting apps like TikTok from U.S. access.
"From the data it collects to the content it controls, TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life," Rodgers said. "Banning your platform will address the immediate threats."
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.