The Biggest Bombshells from the TikTok Ban Hearing
Here are the biggest bombshells from the TikTok hearing as Congress looks into banning the app in the U.S. amid its security and privacy risks
During Thursday's House hearing in Washington, TikTok's chief officer Shou Chew faced nearly five hours of intense grilling from U.S. lawmakers over the viral video app's ties to its Chinese parent company and its handling of user data.
The testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce came amid rare bipartisan support reflecting the increased efforts on Capitol Hill to ban TikTok in the U.S. to protect from Chinese surveillance and information operations, in addition to concerns over the platform's effects on mental health and other national security matters.
Bipartisan skepticism and calls to ban the app have risen since Donald Trump and his administration voiced their speculation over the app during his presidency in 2020, during which he attempted to ban TikTok from Apple's and Google's app stores unless it was sold to an American buyer.
Now, the Biden administration is addressing the matter with a similar, yet different approach — one that has been well-vetted by lawyers and coordinated with new bills in Congress that seemingly have considerable bipartisan support.
Related:Who Is TikTok CEO Shou Chew? Everything to Know
In the weeks prior to the hearing, the Biden administration proposed an ultimatum that echoed that of Trump's failed attempt in 2020. The new demand asked TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, to sell the app or face a possible ban, preventing its approximated 150 million Americans from using it.
"If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn't solve the problem: A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access," Maureen Shanahan, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in a statement upon considering the proposal. Meanwhile, a Chinese government spokesperson announced before the hearing began that China would "resolutely oppose" any U.S. plan to force TikTok's Chinese owner to sell the app.
However, whether ByteDance opts to sell TikTok or the U.S. goes forth in banning it completely, experts on the topic have presented concerns larger than those previously mentioned — suggesting that selling or banning would only settle a portion of the security concerns Americans should consider regarding the growth of Chinese surveillance and its access to U.S. citizens' personal data via social media.
Since there is no U.S. law explicitly governing the access that Beijing or Moscow-based tech and social media employees have to the personal data of U.S. citizens using their services, former chief security officer of Facebook, Alex Stamos, suggested Biden and Congress pass a comprehensive privacy law (in addition to more transparency) in order to regain dominance in tech regulation and further control access to our nation's critical data.
Here are the biggest bombshells from CEO Chew's recent TikTok hearing.
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Democrats and Republicans are united in banning TikTok
The intense questioning of Chew during the TikTok hearing in Washington united lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
"Mr. Chew, welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress," Republican Rep. Buddy Carter said. Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas echoed, "You have been one of the few members to unite this committee."
GOP Rep. claims TikTok is 'an extension of the Chinese Communist Party'
Prior to the hearing's commencement, Chew — who was appointed CEO in May 2021 — told Congress in a written testimony that "ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country." He then explained TikTok's updated data security model in contract with Oracle, an industry leader in cloud-based services, to store TikTok's U.S. user data.
However, Chew spent hours of the hearing struggling to reassure lawmakers that TikTok doesn't pose a threat to its U.S. users nor share their data with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — despite Chew noting in his opening statement that he's never lived in China (only the United Kingdom, the U.S. and his native Singapore) nor does TikTok operate there.
"Since the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, the theory goes that ByteDance, and thus indirectly, TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data," CNN suggested.
Unfazed by Chew's defense, Rep. McMorris Rodgers argued, "To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations."
Chew replied that he has "looked in" and has "seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access" to U.S. user data. "They have never asked us, we have not provided it," he added.
Related:Parents Sue TikTok After Daughters Die Doing 'Blackout Challenge': 'We Want People to Be Aware'
CEO Chew says TikTok collects precise locations from 'a small percentage' of users who haven't updated the app
TikTok collects personal information from its users like phone numbers, email addresses, contacts and WiFi networks — a practice that's no different from other apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
However, U.S. officials countered that Chinese law requires the Beijing-based ByteDance "to make the app's data available to the CCP," reported CBS News. While the U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating the company for possible spying, Chew admitted that it does gather "a small percentage" of users' precise location if they haven't updated the app since 2020.
Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan asked if TikTok has ever "provided the Chinese government with either precise GPS information collected from U.S. users or inferences made from that data" at any time, to which Chew responded, "That I can give you a straight-up no."
Lawmakers claim that TikTok is unsafe for adolescents and 'leading to death'
Democratic Rep. Cárdenas accused Chew of avoiding questions based on evidence that TikTok and its algorithms have negatively impacted children's mental health, while Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette mentioned that his company's efforts to stop the spread of false information haven't been effective.
"You gave me only generalized statements that you're investing, that you're concerned, that you're doing work," DeGette said in response to Chew's claim that the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit harmful content.
She added: "That's not enough for me. That's not enough for the parents of America."
"Your technology is literally leading to death," Republican representative Gus Bilirakis told Chew after presenting the committee with a series of TikTok videos that "appeared to glorify self-harm and suicide, or outright tell viewers to kill themselves," described by Reuters.
Related:Parents Suing TikTok Over Teen Son's Death Make Emotional Appearance at Congressional Hearing
CEO Shou Chew is accused of not answering questions during the hearing
Amid an exchange between Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) and Chew, Dunn told the TikTok CEO that "you have not given straightforward answers; we don't find you credible on these things," to which Chew responded: "You have given me no time to answer your questions; I reject these characterizations."
The hearing developed into an interrogation by both Republicans and Democrat politicians that required a simple "yes" or "no" answer from Chew. The questions covered everything from U.S. user data access to safety concerns with young users on the app.
Several of his responses were variations of "I can get back to you." When Dunn asked Chew if "ByteDance [has] spied on American citizens," the CEO replied, "I don't think that spying is the right way to describe it," and said the employees were conducting "an internal investigation."
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