TikTok rallies US users as it prepares defence against ban

22 Mar 2023

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew at the World Economic Forum in 2020. Image: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew plans to tell US officials that ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of the platform, is ‘not an agent of China or any other country’.

TikTok’s CEO has made a video addressing the company’s US users, as the platform prepares to defend itself against the threat of a nationwide ban.

In the video, CEO Shou Zi Chew said the video app has more than 150m monthly-active-users in the US, or “almost half of the US coming to TikTok”. He also said 5m businesses use the app, while the company has 7,000 employees in the US.

“Now this comes at a pivotal moment for us,” Chew said. “Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok. Now this could take away TikTok from all 150m of you”.

Chew asked viewers to share what they want their elected representatives to know about “what you love about TikTok”.

The rallying video comes as the CEO plans to testify before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee tomorrow (23 March).

This will be an opportunity for TikTok to address concerns that the app – owned by Beijing-based ByteDance – may be providing private user data from around the world to the Chinese government for surveillance purposes.

In a prepared statement, Chew plans to detail the efforts TikTok makes to protect US data and the safety of its generally younger audience.

“We do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150m Americans, and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem,” the statement reads.

This statement claims TikTok spent $1bn in 2021 on “trust and safety” measures and that the company is taking steps “to become the most trusted and secure digital platform”.

TikTok’s main defence around data security measures is Project Texas, an initiative “dedicated to safeguarding both US user data and US national security interests”. Chew said the platform has spent $1.5bn on implementing this project.

Chew also plans to defend ByteDance at the hearing, as US officials have threatened to enact the full ban unless the Chinese company sells its stake in TikTok.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” the statement reads. “Our approach has been to work transparently and cooperatively with the US government and Oracle to design robust solutions to address concerns about TikTok’s heritage.”

International security concerns

The security concerns surrounding TikTok don’t end with the US, as various countries around the world have issued bans on the app for state devices.

On this side of the Atlantic, the UK moved to ban TikTok on government devices as a measure of “good cyber hygiene”. The European Commission also asked all employees to delete the TikTok app from devices provided by the organisation by 15 March.

This move followed a confirmation by TikTok last November that employees in China and a host of other countries have remote access to European user data. Until then, it was believed data was only stored in Singapore and the US.

In response to these security concerns, TikTok recently announced Project Clover, which is a new set of measures to protect European user data.

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew at a World Economic Forum meeting in 2020. Image: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic