US Lawmakers question TikTok CEO on Beijing ties

FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 2023

US lawmakers on Thursday battered TikTok's chief executive about potential Chinese influence over the platform and said its short videos were damaging children's mental health, reflecting bipartisan concerns over the app's power over Americans.

CEO Shou Zi Chew's testimony before Congress did little to assuage US worries over TikTok's China-based parent company ByteDance and added fresh momentum to lawmakers' calls to ban the platform nationwide.

Over five hours of testimony, Chew repeatedly denied the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party and argued the platform was doing everything to ensure the safety of its 150 million American users.

But not a single lawmaker offered support for TikTok or sympathy for Chew's reassurances, as they deemed his answers on China evasive and aired concerns over the power the app holds over US children.

Others accused TikTok of promoting content that encourages eating disorders among children, illegal drug sales and sexual exploitation.

Chew responded to many pointed questions by saying the issues were "complex" and not unique to TikTok.

The company says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on data security efforts under the name "Project Texas" which currently has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle Corp to store TikTok's US user data.

But critics were not appeased as the company failed to announce any new efforts to safeguard privacy.

It is not clear how lawmakers will proceed after the hearing or how quickly they might move to pass legislation to strengthen the Biden administration's legal powers to ban TikTok.

US Lawmakers question TikTok CEO on Beijing ties

"Shut it down right now": 'Moms against TikTok' protest outside Congress

 A group of conservative internet celebrities, influencers and activists held a 'Ban TikTok' event outside the US Capitol on Thursday while the platform's CEO, Shou Zi Chew, faced tough questions from lawmakers. 

"It's an epidemic at the moment with girls and anxiety and depression," a mother of two with 'Moms for Liberty' Jill Moser told Reuters after participating in the news conference and sitting in the Chew hearing. "We know where it's coming from. This is not a hard one to figure out. So I don't see why it would be that challenging to do what we're asking, which is ban TikTok."

"TikTok is a weapon being used to groom our kids," Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik, seen by many as a right-wing internet celeb who amassed a massive following going after LGBTQ+ issues and mocking 'woke politics' told reporters.

Some political experts say a TikTok ban could be damaging to Democrats who have used the platform to reach younger voters. Three House Democrats rallied with TikTok creators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in opposition to a ban.

Still, far more US lawmakers want TikTok banned. Last week, TikTok said President Joe Biden's administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.

'Gen Z would riot' if TikTok got banned in the US

As TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced tough questions from lawmakers, people in New York's Washington Square Park said if TikTok were banned in the US, "Gen Z would riot."

"Look at the range of content creators, my mom is a Gen X, so I don't think it's just limited to Gen Z, but I think they're the changemakers of making it stay if it were to get banned," said New York University graduate student Anushka Singh.

Singh said TikTok has more to offer "than just dancing on the app."

"Maybe get on the app and educate yourself," she said. "You'll find education videos, cooking videos, there's a whole range of content out there, you just have to consume it if you have the time."

Some Gen Zers were worried about how addictive TikTok could be.

"They're trying to cut back their screen time," said 19-year-old Paige Wilson. "They realize that there's an algorithm that's meant to keep them on the app and I'm not sure they like that."

"I'd say that screen time is definitely the bigger thing other than security when it comes to TikTok, it's that algorithm, it's made for that reason alone, to keep you on," said her brother, 20-year-old Carter Wilson. "I get on it maybe twice, but I can't count how many hours or minutes I've spent on that app just in those two times alone in that day. I'd say it's very addictive, once you get on, it's hard to get off."

Chew's testimony before Congress capped a week of actions by the Chinese company aimed at convincing Americans and their lawmakers that the app creates economic value and supports free speech. Instead, members of Congress accused the company of spying and deception, adding to calls to ban the app.

"It's a privacy breach," said 17-year-old Henry Deblois. "They collect a lot of data. I watched a video about the privacy agreement and apparently, once you agree to it, they can view your whole phone like they can see your contacts and such. I thought that that was pretty weird, so that's why I uninstalled it actually, because I just don't want them to collect data."

"I think it would be a real shame if it was banned in the United States," said Henry's mother, Carly Gaston. "I think information sharing and TikTok as a platform for that is exceptionally useful. I've learned more on TikTok about current events than I have through mainstream media because it's more easily accessible and it doesn't have to pass through a bunch of bureaucratic gates. It's freedom of information, and I think it's an awesome platform."

Gaston said she's not worried about TikTok collecting her information.

"They already have it," she said. "I'm sure they do. Facebook can sell your information as soon as you sign up for Facebook. They already have it. I do somewhat worry about the government usage, like government employees, but as private citizens, I don't think there's any greater risk than what we're already exposed to."

Singh agreed.

"Facebook's had our information for years, so I don't think the Chinese are a problem," she said. "Everyone's got your information. Google's had it for years. Everything that you ever clicked or searched on, everyone has your information. This is not about another country now, additionally, having your information."

TikTok, which has more than 150 million American users, was repeatedly hammered in the ongoing hearing where no lawmaker offered any support. Many, who often noted they themselves were parents, talked of a need to rein in the power held by the app over US children.

Republicans and Democrats also raised numerous concerns about its potential to threaten US national security by sharing its data with the Chinese government.