All you need to know about the TikTok hearing

24 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 answered some tough questions from a Congressional committee ahead of proposals to ban the app used by 150m people in the US.

Some people run marathons faster than the time lawmakers spent grilling TikTok’s CEO in the US Congress yesterday (23 March).

Shou Zi Chew, who is from Singapore and has been TikTok’s chief since 2021, was asked questions by a bipartisan committee over a five-hour period on the social media giant’s practices while the US considers whether it should ban the app.

Here’s how it went down.

TikTok’s relationship with China

Because TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, many in the West have raised concerns about its connections with the Chinese government and whether it could access user data. The most vocal of this group have been US legislators.

Committee members asked Chew how often he was in contact with Chinese Communist Party members and whether there are enough protections in place to ensure that data of the 150m US users is safe in the hands of TikTok.

Chew stressed TikTok’s independence from China, reminding members that the app itself is not available in mainland China and that the company is dually headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles. TikTok has more than 7,000 employees in the US.

“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 trivialise any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action.”

This ‘real action’ that Chew refers to is Project Texas, which is TikTok’s plan to relocate all US user data to domestic servers to counter surveillance allegations. Through this plan, US tech giant Oracle would act as a third-party monitor and scrutinise the app’s source code.

Chew promised to realise the goals of Project Texas by the end of the year, but lawmakers weren’t convinced.

“I am concerned that what you’re proposing with Project Texas just doesn’t have the technical capability of providing us the assurances that we need,” said Jay Obernolte, a member of he US Congress who is also a software engineer.

Earlier this month, TikTok revealed a new set of measures that it said would protect European user data as part of Project Clover. This includes storing user data of more than 150m monthly European users within the continent through the creation of a second data centre in Dublin and one in Norway.

Effect on teens

As is the case with most social media apps, including Instagram and Facebook, lawmakers were concerned about some of the negative effects TikTok has on teens.

But what makes TikTok stand out in this debate is its sheer popularity within the age group. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority (67pc) of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17 say they use the app, with 16pc claiming to use TikTok “almost constantly”.

Some of the concerns raised by the Congress included the app’s effects on mental health and the alleged proliferation of drug and self-harm related videos on TikTok.

Chew said he takes these concerns “very seriously” and any videos that promotes such trends among teens are removed as soon as they are identified.

“This is an industry-wide challenge, and we’re investing as much as we can. We don’t think it represents the majority of the users’ experience on TikTok, but it does happen,” Chew said.

What’s next

The US Congress showed uncharacteristic bipartisan unity when questioning Chew throughout the five hours, hinting at the general temperament among lawmakers to be in favour of a complete ban on TikTok in the US.

The federal government has already banned TikTok on all government devices, with similar moves being made in both the EU and the UK. But banning an app as popular as TikTok may not go down well with the general US public.

Some activist groups, such as Fight for the Future, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the American Civil Liberties Union, have opposed the ban on the grounds that it “would have serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere”.

Chew himself wasn’t pleased with the line of questioning that will help the US decide if it wants to go ahead with the ban.

“With all due respect, American companies don’t have a great track record with data … Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he quipped.

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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)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic