TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shaw Zi-che reacts during a session to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing titled “TikTok: How Congress Can Protect American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Harm Online,” as lawmakers scrutinize the video. which belongs to China. exchange program, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2023.

Evelyn Hochstein | Reuters

“Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” Rep. Buddy Carter, D-Ga., boomed as he spoke to TikTok CEO Shaw Zi-Chu, a couple of hours after a marathon hearing on the potential threat to US consumers from the wildly popular short film ended. -form video application.

“We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security, we care about our economy, and we certainly care about our children,” Carter said.

During the questioning from both sides of the aisle on Thursday, Chew found a small respite. Lawmakers have criticized it over the app’s potential to harm children through its addictive features and potentially dangerous messages, and whether US user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government through its China-based owner ByteDance.

After more than five hours of questioning, it was clear that lawmakers on the committee are not happy with TikTok’s current ownership structure, even if not all of them are calling for an outright ban. But Chu’s testimony did not allay many concerns lawmakers have about his ties to China or the adequacy of his risk-reduction plan, Project Texas. In some cases, it may even provide fodder for those who find the risk from TikTok unacceptable.

“Nothing you’ve said so far has put me at ease, and frankly, I think your testimony has left me with more questions than answers,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, DD, said at one point in the hearing. .

It’s unclear how Thursday’s hearing will translate into action. But several members seemed focused on passing a comprehensive digital privacy bill, like the one the group passed in the last Congress but never made it to the full House for a vote. Such legislation would help address data privacy concerns that exist across all technology companies, including US businesses Meta, GoogleTwitter and Tie up.

Congress has considered such a bill for years with no results. Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., said it was the 32nd hearing Congress has held on privacy and big tech.

Banning or forcing the sale of the app, which some participants believe is the only way to address the immediate risks, is another matter. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly. It can recommend to the president that divestment be enforced if members cannot agree on an acceptable alternative to mitigate national security risks.

Or the government could find other ways to ban the app. For example, the bipartisan RESTRICT Act introduced in the Senate would give the Commerce Secretary the ability to inspect technology from foreign adversaries and recommend to the President that the technology be banned if the risks cannot be adequately mitigated.

In one particularly dramatic moment Thursday, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., showed a video she found on TikTok that showed what appeared to be an animated gun constantly reloading with the caption, “I’m on the House Committee on of energy and commerce on 03.23.23″. TikTok removed the video at some point during the hearing.

In a statement, TikTok played down the importance of Thursday’s hearing.

“Shaw came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but unfortunately the day was dominated by a political stance that failed to acknowledge the real decisions already made in Project Texas or to productively address youth safety issues across the industry,” she said. TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter. . “Also not mentioned today by members of the Committee: the livelihoods of the 5 million businesses on TikTok, or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans.”

Clarity on China

Chu began his opening remarks by sharing details of his background and the countries he was associated with. Chu said he has lived in Singapore, the UK and the US. Like him, his parents were born in Singapore and his wife in Virginia.

It is noteworthy that China was not on the list.

But during the hearing, lawmakers took issue with TikTok’s ties to China through its parent company.

While TikTok has recently found some allies on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have not shown a similar level of sympathy for the app. On Wednesday, Rep. Jamal Bowman, D-D, likened the attention to TikTok to a “red scare” in China, but many of his Democratic colleagues on Thursday appeared deeply concerned about the security risks associated with TikTok’s Chinese ownership.

During the hearing, lawmakers questioned Chu about the ability of ByteDance’s Chinese employees to access U.S. data, the failure to remove certain dangerous or harmful messages and whether they interacted with the Chinese Communist Party.

Chu denies that TikTok shares data with the Chinese Communist Party. He said the company has no policy to ask individual employees about their party affiliation in China, but that ByteDance CEO Liang Roubo is not a party member.

A key question for committee members seemed to be whether TikTok would be able to uphold American values ​​as a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Lawmakers and intelligence officials fear that Chinese government officials could gain access to U.S. user data from ByteDance through a Chinese law that allows officials to obtain information about the company for national security reasons.

“We do not believe that TikTok will ever embrace American values ​​— the values ​​of freedom, human rights and innovation,” said Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers, D-Wash., who supports the TikTok ban, in prepared remarks.

“TikTok needs to be an American company with American values ​​and end its ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Darren Soto, R-Fla., later reiterated.

Chu acknowledged that Chinese employees may still be able to access some US data, but that new data will stop flowing in once the firm finishes removing data from its servers in Singapore and Virginia as part of its Project Texas mitigation plan.

But several members said they believe the draft still does not go far enough to protect American data.

“I don’t find what you’ve proposed about the Texas project and this firewall that’s being proposed to anyone to be acceptable to me,” said ranking member Frank Pallone, DN.J. “I still believe that the Communist government in Beijing will still control and be able to influence what you do.”

It didn’t help that The Wall Street Journal reported that China said it would oppose a forced sale of TikTok, saying it would include technology exports.

“Despite your claims to the contrary, China certainly believes it controls TikTok and its software,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, D-Texas, pointing to the article.

Burgess and others also asked Chu about his training and whether ByteDance employees were involved in preparing him for the hearing. Chew said the TikTok team in D.C. helped him prepare.

Chew later told Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, that TikTok has legal help with ByteDance. Griffith said that under the arrangement, “legally there is no firewall” because those lawyers can share information with each other.

When Rep. Debbie Leska of Arizona asked if the Chinese government was persecuting the country’s Uyghur minority group, Chu tried to steer the discussion back to TikTok.

“While it is very disturbing to hear about all the reports of human rights violations, my role here is to explain what our platform does,” Chu said.

Later, when Rep. August Pfluger, D-Texas, asked if TikTok supported genocide, Chew again tried to turn the conversation back to TikTok. When asked again, Chiu said no, he did not support it.

Towards the end of the hearing, Chu said that his testimony was an attempt to do something almost impossible. Citing a report by members of Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, Chew said: “Citizen Lab says they can’t prove a negative, which is what I’ve been trying to do for the last four hours.”

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