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TikTok CEO testifies before Congress

Like the Biden The administration is stepping up its threats against TikTok, the company’s chief executive made his first appearance before Congress on Thursday. Given the US government’s recent aggressive stance, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was destined for a severe turn under the glare of the government’s big, bright lights – and that’s largely what happened. passed over the sprawling five hours of the hearing.

In his opening statements, Chew said the company would protect the safety of minors, strengthen its privacy and security practices, and ward off any possibility of “unauthorized foreign access” to US user data.

“…I understand that there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about US users with the Chinese government,” a said Chew. “This is absolutely false.”

Chew claimed that TikTok has never shared US user data with the Chinese government and has never received a request to do so. If China requested access to data on Americans, Chew argued the company would not comply.

“Let me say this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.

As the hearing unfolded, lawmakers from both political parties pressed Chew for answers about the company’s relationship with China, its failure to moderate disturbing content and its plans to bolster the confidence in the United States, its largest market.

Facing an onslaught of critical questions, TikTok tore a page from the classic tech audience manual written by companies like Meta and Google in recent years. While Chew has come across as comfortable and friendly — more than some American tech executives can say — he has exaggerated some of the company’s accomplishments and repeatedly dodged substantive answers on tough questions. .

A number of representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on younger users. After Chew touted the app’s 60-minute watch limit for teens, John Sarbanes rep brought the company’s claims about its social media addiction protections back to reality.

“I understand teenagers can quite easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they wish,” Sarbanes said. “I mean, let’s face it, our teenagers are half smarter than us and they know how to use technology and they can work around those limitations if they want to.”

At the start of his testimony, Chew cited a report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab, saying the organization had definitely found no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. The Citizen Lab director responded in real time on Twitter, criticizing the characterization.

“Our analysis was explicit about having no visibility into what happened to user data once it was collected and transmitted back to TikTok’s servers,” he wrote. “While we have no way of determining whether or not this happened, we even speculated on possible mechanisms by which the Chinese government could use unconventional techniques to obtain TikTok user data via pressure. on ByteDance.”

In another exchange with Florida Rep. Neal Dunn, Chew took issue with the use of the term “espionage” to describe an incident in which ByteDance employees monitored US citizens via TikTok in order to identify the source. information disclosed.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Chew took to the app to announce that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the United States, a huge jump from the last reported numbers. The milestone goes both ways, underscoring concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and threatening that a US ban will outrage users and creators. At least one group of creators is organizing a protest against the proposed ban in Washington, DC this week, drawing attention to the negative impact it would have on their businesses.

@TIC Tac

Our CEO, Shou Chew, is sharing a special message on behalf of the entire TikTok team to thank our community of 150 million Americans ahead of his congressional hearing later this week.

♬ original sound – TikTok

“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is threatened and their data manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” said committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “What’s worse, we know that Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online.”

The committee pressed Chew on the steps TikTok is taking to protect children on the app, noting that the hearing is the latest effort to hold tech companies accountable for their negative impacts on society. Lawmakers also highlighted concerns that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China with Chinese ownership, that it could be exploited by the Chinese government to promote state interests.

While there’s no evidence that China collects data on Americans or intentionally shapes political behavior through its algorithms, there are concerns that the company’s privacy practices are not airtight.

Last year, an internal company investigation confirmed that employees at its Beijing headquarters intended to track US journalists through their TikTok activity in an effort to uncover the source of the internal leaks. The incident apparently sparked investigations by multiple federal agencies, which were first reported last week. The Justice Department’s Criminal Division Fraud Section is working with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy, putting additional pressure on U.S. business at risk of the company.

TikTok has long pushed back on privacy concerns, arguing that TikTok’s US operations are isolated from its Beijing-based management – and from China itself. Earlier this month, reports emerged that the US government is currently seeking to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, threatening to ban the app nationwide if the company does not comply.

TikTok responded by highlighting its recent campaign for self-regulation, a venture known as Project Texas. The campaign is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the US that seeks to present the company’s US operations as transparent and comes with around $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate reorganization. The idea is that TikTok itself can erect a firewall between the company’s US operations and its Chinese ownership, which could appease the US government in the process.

The United States does not seem likely to back down, but it is far from clear that it will be able to follow through on recent threats. The White House attempted a similar maneuver during Trump’s White House, but its efforts crumbled before being picked up by the Biden administration in an unusual show of political continuity between the two. Former President Trump’s threats against TikTok ultimately culminated in a plan to force ByteDance to sell its US operations to Oracle in late 2020. At the time, TikTok also rejected an acquisition offer from Microsoft, but over time, the deal with Oracle also fell through.

Oracle never bought the company, but it’s still around. TikTok then partnered with Oracle to move US data to US-based servers with the company and to perform audits of its algorithms and content moderation systems – an odd move and an odd partner for the company. do, given Oracle co-founder and president Larry Ellison. participation in the campaign to undermine the legitimate results of the 2020 US presidential election.

Given the stakes for the company and its users — and politicians’ penchant for stirring up anti-China sentiment — Thursday’s TikTok was explosive in form even when not in office. Between lawmakers who frequently opt for the rostrum instead of allowing their only witness to speak and others who didn’t understand the basic functionality of the app in question, Thursday’s hearing offered more barking than biting.

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