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Congress was given an unsettling grilling by TikTok CEO Shou Chew, leading to growing concern that a US ban is imminent. Lawmakers from both political parties exchanged questions throughout the day regarding his company and its potential regulatory status.
At a largely bipartisan hearing, members asked hard questions about the company's relationship with China and keylogging technology. Some also expressed reservations about the app's ad-supported content.
On Thursday afternoon, TikTok CEO Chew was testified before Congress by a bipartisan panel of lawmakers about whether his company shares American user data with China's government. As expected, Chew denied sharing any such data.
In a five-hour hearing, lawmakers interrogated Chew on various matters such as TikTok's data practices, its connections to the Chinese Communist Party and how it handles misinformation. They also asked how it prevents children from viewing harmful content and modifies it accordingly.
Chew stood by TikTok's data practices, citing their history of safety measures and that TikTok's parent company ByteDance has three Americans on its board of directors. Additionally, Chew mentioned a U.S.-based firm which handles all of TikTok's data security needs.
He noted TikTok's record with data privacy and their plan to implement "Project Texas," in which all U.S. user data would be stored at software firm Oracle in Austin, Texas and only accessible through a firewall. This initiative, estimated to cost $1.5 billion, involves employing thousands of employees whose job it is to protect American users' personal information.
But many lawmakers, even those who support a ban on TikTok, expressed reservations about its success. Furthermore, some expressed worries that Beijing's Communist Party could spy on TikTok users despite Chew's steps to protect their personal information.
This hearing underscored the growing number of congressional members who view TikTok as a national security risk. According to two polls released this week, majority of Americans believe TikTok's connections with China pose an imminent danger.
However, younger Americans and frequent TikTok users are more likely to oppose a ban. Although most adults in the US are aware of TikTok, only a minority say they would support its removal.
This week, a CBS News/YouGov poll revealed that most Americans believe TikTok's connections to Chinese society pose no threat. That doesn't mean they want the app banned in America; indeed, among younger users who use the app daily, majority say they do not support any ban on TikTok.
On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Chew stood up for their video-sharing app after facing heavy criticism in Congress regarding its Chinese connections and urged lawmakers not to ban it. Though much of the hearing remained hostile, lawmakers were able to press Chew into discussing some broader social media matters as well.
Chew was interrogated during his testimony about children's safety, misinformation and targeted advertising. Additionally, he denied claims that TikTok shares data with Chinese government agencies.
He noted that TikTok does not run political ads and has taken steps to prevent its app from becoming addictive. He defended the company's privacy policies as well as its efforts to address teen mental health problems.
Chew's responses drew condemnation from several legislators, both Republicans and Democrats alike. He was accused of withholding financial information about both his company and its parent, ByteDance, without permission.
Lawmakers expressed concern about TikTok as a potential threat to US security, as it could snoop on American users. They questioned if the company shared data with Chinese government agencies and expressed distrust for its parent company.
Before the hearing, Chew unveiled a $1.5 billion project that would restructure TikTok so user data is stored in the US on servers owned by Oracle. Dubbed "Project Texas," this initiative seeks to address national security concerns by keeping user information away from China's hands.
Though not yet confirmed, it appears unlikely TikTok will be allowed to operate in the US under its current ownership. It could either have to sell off to a third party or face ban from the White House if it cannot meet national security standards.
Despite the harsh criticism of both Democratic and Republican members on Twitter, many expressed their support for Chew. Some posted videos of themselves meeting the CEO, while others wrote encouraging words in response to Chew's statements.
One tweet said, "TikTok is an awesome platform to have fun and express yourself - but we need to protect our kids." Another followed suit with, "Five stars for TikTok!"
In the end, Chew will likely need to defend his platform against a US ban or require ByteDance to sell its stake in the company. According to White House officials, Chew's connections with China pose an imminent danger to US security.
TikTok, a Chinese short-form video app, is using keylogging technology that can monitor users' keystrokes and taps on websites they view within the app, according to a cybersecurity researcher. This same technology is employed by Facebook parent Meta and Google on a larger scale; TikTok may thus collect user data in an unacceptable manner by US lawmakers.
TikTok's in-app web browser can modify websites it renders and fetch metadata from those sites, giving TikTok access to sensitive information such as passwords and credit card details.
TikTok insists this keylogging technology is only used for debugging and performance monitoring, not collecting any other user data. Furthermore, the company said it would reject any request by the Chinese government to access its user records.
Even so, the threat of a ban was raised when TikTok was criticised in Congress by congressional staff members who fear it is an asset for Chinese intelligence agencies. Members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee asked TikTok how it keeps its servers secure and what data it collects about users.
At Thursday's hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Chew insisted the company is not monitoring user data but also refused to explain how it prevents the Chinese government from abusing keylogging features. At that time, Shou Chew noted that keylogging technology was necessary for "debugging, troubleshooting and performance monitoring." Additionally, he highlighted that it's impossible to know exactly what data TikTok collects at any given time or if it may be shared with third parties in the future.
On Wednesday, Congress heard from TikTok users and raised the specter of a US ban. Senators Rick Scott (FL) and Michael Bennet (CO) voiced bipartisan support for such action; both Republicans and Democrats alike called for such a restriction to protect national security.
One major source of disagreement has been TikTok's relationship with China. Reports have suggested that the Chinese government may gain access to user data on TikTok through government surveillance efforts.
Some cybersecurity experts contend that data collection from Americans could potentially expose Americans to information requests from China's government. For instance, it could be used to track someone's whereabouts or discover their activities.
TikTok has vigorously denied these assertions. The app states it adheres to industry practices and collects data in order to operate efficiently and securely, adding that it has never received a data request from the Chinese government.
Furthermore, it refers to an agreement between the U.S. and China which requires companies to provide customer data upon Beijing's request, while also noting that the app stores American data both in the US and Singapore.
Experts agree that TikTok's privacy issue is of grave significance and could influence how countries approach online data protection in the future. They add that TikTok alone likely won't be able to resolve this problem alone.
Over the past few years, TikTok has come under increasing scrutiny regarding its data collection practices. It's been accused of harvesting more user information than rival WeChat and storing user data on Chinese servers. Furthermore, it has been criticized for persistently requesting access to users' contacts even after they decline to share them.
In both the United States and Europe, concerns have been expressed over data flow between those two locations. Although TikTok has stated it is working to close these gaps, there remains a growing fear that this will remain an issue in the future.
Recently, TikTok acknowledged that Chinese-based employees can access US user data in certain circumstances - such as testing algorithms or for security checks. But it has vehemently denied using that data to target Americans and has assured users that no access will be granted to this data by its staff members.