WASHINGTON–What does TikTok do with your personal data?
That question was at the heart of an intense House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, when lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for more than four hours – at times saying the app should be banned because of national security concerns.
Both Democrats and Republicans have been increasingly concerned over the app’s parent company, ByteDance, due to its ties to the Chinese government. Much of the hearing Thursday focused on TikTok’s handling of private user data and security practices.
Chew’s testimony came as multiple congressional committees have been looking into potential economic and national security threats posed by China.
Here’s a breakdown from the marathon hearing, during which Chew tried to convince a skeptical Congress the app poses no danger to national security:
TikTok ‘should be banned,’ McMorris Rodgers tells CEO
Chew dodged questions about what the app does with users’ data, its ties to China and the ways the platform prevents harmful content for children.
Committee members grew frustrated as Chew repeatedly avoided clear yes or no answers to their inquiries.
“I think quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., told Chew.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the committee, said there is little that can change her mind on the app.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation,” said McMorris Rodgers. “Your platform should be banned.”
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Pallone asks Chew whether TikTok sells data
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, pressed Chew on whether the company makes revenue by selling user data.
“You say you’re benign, you want to do good things for the public, so let me ask you.” Pallone said. “What about a commitment that says you won’t sell the data that you collect. Would you commit to that? Not selling the data you collect?”
Chew told Pallone that the company does not sell data to “any data broker.”
But Pallone asked again, clarifying that he was asking whether TikTok sold data to “anyone,” possibly alluding to the Chinese government. “I didn’t ask about data brokers. Do you sell it to anyone?” Pallone said.
Chew said he “can get back to” Pallone and the committee on the details.
What is Project Texas?
Throughout the hearing, Chew has told lawmakers that the app is taking steps to protect user data through its security proposal, “Project Texas.”
The plan would store U.S. user data on American soil and would be done in coordination with Texas-based computer technology corporation Oracle. The plan includes an entirely U.S.-based security team that would have access to the data and also allow the U.S. government to regularly monitor the operation.
“Project Texas” would, TikTok hopes, instill confidence in U.S. officials that TikTok operates independently of the Chinese government, but lawmakers in the hearing have appeared largely skeptical of the plan.
TikTok legacy data to be deleted
Chew said there is legacy U.S. TikTok data in servers in Virginia and Singapore.
“We are deleting those and we expect that to be complete this year,” he said.
After this data is deleted, Chew said all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law.
“This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law,” he said.
The potential security and privacy concerns raised about TIkTok are not unique to the platform, Chew said, adding that the same issues apply to other companies.
“We believe what is needed are clear and transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies,” he said.
Chew rejects proposal for Chinese owners to sell stakes in TikTok
One potential solution that the White House is pushing for is demanding TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell its stakes in the app. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., asked Chew if the platform would be prepared to divest if the situation arises.
“Would TikTok be prepared to divest from ByteDance and Chinese communist party ties if the Department of Treasury instructed you all to do so?” Soto asked.
Chew disavowed the proposal, arguing that he does not think “ownership is the issue here,” pointing to other social media companies that have improperly managed its data, such as Facebook and its relationship with now-defunct political firm Cambridge Analytica.
CEO dodges questions on TikTok
Chew has been hesitant to provide clear yes or no answers to lawmakers’ questions throughout the hearing.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., asked Chew if he would oppose legislation that would ban intentionally manipulative design techniques to trick users to provide personal information. She also asked if TikTok users can opt out of targeted ads. Both questions did not receive a clear response from Chew.
“I think quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers,” Blunt Rochester said.
Chew pressed on TikTok’s Spanish content
Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., asked Chew about how the app could effectively moderate Spanish content that violates the app’s community guidelines, such as disinformation and violent content if it could not flag the earlier apparent threat to Rep. Catherine McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., played to the committee.
“So I guess I’m a little concerned if your team doesn’t have the resources and capabilities to flag that, what kind of capability does it have to bring down misinformation, disinformation, for Spanish speakers?”
Chew affirmed the platform’s commitment to moderating inappropriate content, but did not provide specifics on the app’s strategy on taking down violating content, saying that it values its “Spanish language user base.”
“So you don’t have an answer then,” replied Barragán.
Violent TikTok video quickly taken down after played before committee
A TikTok video that showed an apparent violent threat against the chair of the committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., was taken down during the hearing after Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., played it publicly to the committee. The video, Cammack claims, was up for more than 40 days.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., asked Chew why the video was only taken down after it was played before the committee, to which Chew responded that it highlights how difficult it is to effectively moderate violent content on the app.
“It goes to show the enormous challenge that we have to make sure that although the vast majority of users come for a good experience, we need to make sure that bad actors don’t post violent content,” Chew said, adding that his company is still investing into moderation practices.
TikTok CEO ‘not sure’ if app content harmful to children
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., said research shows TikTok is the most addictive platform out there and attributed this to its advanced algorithm.
“There are those on this committee including myself who believe that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through TikTok to deliberately influence U.S. children,” he said.
Carter pressed Chew if China’s TikTok platform has challenges with content that could be harmful to children.
Chew responded with “I’m not sure.”
Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., asked Chew about TikTok’s terms of service which do not allow for the depiction, promotion or trade of drug or other controlled substance. But Guthrie said content related to illicit drugs like fentanyl, drug trafficking and other illicit activity is pervasive on the platform, referencing the Benadryl challenge that left one American teenager dead.
“TikTok does not allow illegal drugs,” Chew responded.
He explained that there are 40,000 people as well as machines looking to detect keywords or content with illicit drug trafficking.
Chew: TikTok ‘a place where teenagers come to learn’
As TikTok has grown, Chew said they the company has tried to learn lessons from other social media companies when it comes to teenagers.
“We spend a lot of time adopting measures to protect teenagers,” he said. “Many of these measures are firsts for the social media industry — we forbid direct messaging for people under 16 and we have a 60-minute watch time by default for those under 18.”
Chew said TikTok wants to be a place “where teenagers come to learn.”
Chew: ‘Misconceptions’ about Chinese company ByteDance
Chew said there are misconceptions about the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, explaining that the company is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government and is a private company.
According to Chew, ByteDance has five board members, three of which are American. He said TikTok has been addressing national security concerns with “real action.”
“That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years– building what amounts to a firewall that seals out protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access,” he said.
U.S. calls for TikTok owners to sell stakes in company
The issue came to a head last week when the Biden administration demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, a federal task force that considers national security risks in cross-border business investments, made the demand, according to TikTok.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok. Now, this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you,” Chew said in a video Tuesday before the hearing.
What would happen if the US banned TikTok?
If the United States bans TikTok, it may remove it from the Apple and Google app stores. That would prevent users from getting updates and new users from signing up.
Americans could still install TikTok on their phones by “sideloading” it or they could access TikTok via browsers, according to Bruce Schneier, lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “A Hacker’s Mind.”
The U.S. also might ban U.S. companies from doing business with TikTok, which would cut it off from the infrastructure needed to run the app. That would also hit TikTok’s advertising business.
Contributing: Jessica Guynn