As TikTok’s chief executive made his first appearance in front of Congress, U.S. lawmakers made it clear that other Big Tech companies are also still very much in the hot seat.
On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew spent more than four hours answering questions from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee as members peppered him with questions about the social media app. Some focused on the company’s connections to its China-based parent company ByteDance and the Chinese government, while others addressed issues of data privacy, advertising, content moderation and mental health.
The hearing comes as governments around the world seek to ban TikTok from government devices to curb what officials say is a national security threat. Meanwhile, some lawmakers in the U.S. have proposed an outright ban on TikTok, which TikTok and various other groups have said would harm the growing number of individuals and businesses that rely on it. The Biden administration has even called on ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company — a demand China oppposes — but Chew said that wouldn’t solve data privacy concerns that continue to plague many social networks.
“We need to address the problem of privacy,” Chew said. “I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Just one example.”
Chew — who became TikTok’s CEO in 2021 — also tried to reassure lawmakers that TikTok isn’t as connected to the Chinese government as some suggest. For example, he touted TikTok’s “Project Texas,” which includes a $1.5 billion plan to overhaul the app’s data storage to put all U.S. user data under the protection of U.S. law. Other updates would include new third-party oversight of the app’s infrastructure and other changes through a partnership with Oracle. He also said TikTok’s content moderation and data-privacy practices were no different than other social networks, arguing that he hasn’t “heard any good reason why this doesn’t work.”
There were also plenty of questions that Chew avoided directly answering. For example, he promised to follow up when asked whether TikTok should be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. (The controversial law was also the topic of two recent cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court related to Twitter and Google.) Chew also promised to later provide more details about whether TikTok collects geolocation data, what percentage of revenue is held by TikTok’s parent company and other questions about the app’s ties with China. When pressed to provide specifics about who helped him prepare for the hearing, he said his phone was “full of well-wishes” ahead of the high-profile testimony.
Both Republicans and Democrats noted how TikTok concerns have transcended political parties more than two years after former U.S. President Donald Trump initially sought to ban the app. During Thursday’s hearing, one lawmaker pointed out that Congress has already had dozens of hearings about “privacy and big tech.” Several others said the U.S. needs to pass a national data privacy law, which passed through a committee last year but failed to gain additional traction. During her five minutes of questioning, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester said she “came here hoping to get answers.” However, she said her concerns have grown.
“We’re upset with TikTok and yes, you keep mentioning that there are industry issues that not only TikTok faces,” said U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie. “You remind me a lot of Mark Zuckerberg. When he came here, I said to my staff [that] he reminds me of Fred Astaire — a good dancer with words — and you are doing the same today.”
When asked several times if TikTok sells its data, Chew seemed to dodge the question. In one instance, he said the app doesn’t sell data to anyone. When responding to another question, he said “I believe we don’t sell data to data brokers.” When asked if GPS data is used for serving ads, he offered to “check on the details.” Chew also said he’d follow up with an answer about how much revenue comes from advertising directed at kids between the ages of 13 and 17, and added that TikTok doesn’t serve ads to children younger than that.
Reaction to Chew’s testimony
Beyond the walls of Congress, civil and digital rights groups have been organizing against a potential TikTok ban. For example, the organization Fight For The Future created a “DontBanTikTok” campaign featuring various TikTok creators. And in a separate letter to Congress, more than a dozen groups including the American Civil Liberties Union argued that a TikTok ban would harm digital freedoms.
“We should be able to use the internet and not have to hop from platform to platform because of the whims of Congress,” Phillips said.
TikTok’s advertising practices aren’t any more egregious than other social platforms, according to Bonnie Patten, CEO of the watchdog organization Truth In Advertising. However, she said her team has found instances of advertising on the platform that don’t adhere to TikTok’s own terms and conditions. For example, she mentioned finding a “multitude” of non-disclosed advertising from influencers and various cases of multilevel marketing schemes despite TikTok’s ban on them.
“From a marketing standpoint, the issues that TikTok raises are no different than the issues that are being raised on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat for that matter,” Patten said. “We’re seeing the same deceptive marketing that negatively impacts kids. The big difference is who owns it.”