The CEO of social media giant TikTok came in for a bipartisan bashing during a congressional hearing Thursday, as both Republicans and Democrats denounced the company as an arm of the communist Chinese government.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values: values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. — who led the hearing as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
“Your platform should be banned,” McMorris Rodgers told Chew. “I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
McMorris Rodgers said her concern was that TikTok, which claims to have over 150 million users in the United States, can “collect sensitive information on and control what we ultimately see, hear and believe.”
She added that the Chinese government requires ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, “to spy on their behalf.”
“TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life,” she said. “It's been said it is like allowing the Soviet Union the power to produce Saturday-morning cartoons during the Cold War, but much more powerful and much more dangerous.”
Unlike a typical congressional hearing, where there is usually some difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats, on Thursday hostility and skepticism toward TikTok were nearly unanimous and bipartisan.
“You have been one of the first people to unite this committee,” Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., told Chew. “We're upset with TikTok.”
“Your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., told Chew.
“TikTok is the spy in Americans’ pockets,” said Rep. John Joyce, R-Pa.
Chew, for his part, grew exasperated as he tried to push back with answers that were deemed insufficient by committee members.
“Congressman, you’re giving me no time to answer your questions. I reject your characterizations,” he told Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., after the congressman repeatedly spoke over the TikTok CEO and interrupted him.
Chew claimed that ByteDance is not influenced by the Chinese government or beholden to it. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he wrote in his prepared testimony to the committee.
But skeptics argue, as McMorris Rodgers did, that Chinese law requires all private companies to “grant the [Chinese Communist Party] access and manipulation capabilities as a design feature.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Chinese government said it would oppose any forced sale by TikTok’s Chinese founders of their shares. The Biden administration has reportedly insisted that this sale take place or else a national ban of the app may be necessary.
And Chew himself acknowledged to Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, that engineers in China have access to the data of U.S. users. He attempted to downplay this fact by emphasizing something the company calls Project Texas, which TikTok says will firewall U.S. user data away from any Chinese government influence or control.
Project Texas would store all U.S. user data on servers housed in the state of Texas and owned by Oracle, a U.S. company, Chow insisted.
“Earlier this month, we began the process of deleting historical protected U.S. user data stored in non-Oracle servers; we expect this process to be completed later this year,” he wrote in his prepared testimony.
“When that process is complete, all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it.”
The implicit admission is that, as of now, there is a way for the Chinese government to access U.S. user data. And the top Democrat on the committee said that even if and when Project Texas is completed, it would not satisfy him.
“I don't find what you suggested with Project Texas ... will be acceptable to me,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”
Many states already forbid state employees to have TikTok on their government devices. And while most calls for a TikTok ban have come from Republicans, Democrats have been rapidly losing patience with the company, and a few have joined GOP calls for a ban.
Democrats are wary, however, that banning TikTok could produce a backlash among young voters. “Passing a law to ban a single company is not the way to deal with this issue,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently told Bloomberg. “The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll last week found that a majority of Americans — 54% — said they believe TikTok is a national security threat to the United States, while 23% said it is not, and another 23% were unsure. And 55% of Americans said TikTok should be banned, while 25% said it shouldn’t.
However, the survey found that younger Americans were much less inclined to say the company is dangerous, with only 34% of those under 30 saying it should be banned.
At the other end of the age spectrum, meanwhile, a full 72% of Americans over 65 are in favor of banning TikTok.