During a US congressional hearing on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew endured a gruelling four-and-a-half-hour session of questioning, which left him bruised and exhausted. The relentless and damaging line of questioning lasted longer than some marathons. While it’s not uncommon for tech executives to face tough questioning from Congress, this hearing was exceptional in its unrelenting nature. Both Democrats and Republicans posed difficult questions without any respite. While a TikTok spokesperson accused the politicians of grandstanding, the hearing did yield some informative insights, despite the occasionally long-winded questioning.
You Can Also Read: THE DARK SIDE OF SOCIAL MEDIA: HOW IT CONTRIBUTES TO DEPRESSION
In the whole hearing, Chew continuously denied the fact of sharing data with political parties in China and the allegation of having a connection with the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, Chew repeatedly argued that the platform is doing everything to ensure the safety of its total of 150 million American users.
Chinese engineers have access to TikTok’s US data
During the hearing, Mr. Chew mentioned a proposal called “Project Texas,” which aims to store all TikTok data in the US under the supervision of American firm Oracle. Chew claimed that, for more than two years, TikTok has been trying to construct a firewall to safeguard American users’ data from unauthorised access by foreigners. He added, “All the American data is secured and reserved in American territory, and an American company itself is looking after all these things; the personnel who are in charge if managing and overseeing these things are also Americans.”
However, Project Texas is not yet fully operational. Mr. Chew confirmed that ByteDance engineers, the parent company of TikTok, still have access to data, and they rely on global interoperability. This was a point of concern for the politicians because it is challenging to see how the Chinese government could not access the data if engineers in China have access to it.
According to the company itself, under the name “Project Texas”, we have spent more than $1.5 billion on securing data transmission. Nearly 1,500 employees are working here full time here to safeguard the U.S. data of TikTok users.
However, China’s foreign ministry reiterated on Friday that it does not request companies to provide data or intelligence located in other countries.
Chew further added, “It is our duty to and commitment to all that we will keep TikTok free from the manipulation of government, and we are guaranteeing you that we do not promote or delete anything at the request of government here, and TikTok strictly screens off those that are harmful to the psychological wellbeing of children.
Chew have ByteDance share
Chew attempted to distance TikTok from its parent company, ByteDance, in the hearing. But this defence was met with little success. ByteDance is the owner of TikTok by any definition, and Chew himself previously served as the company’s chief financial officer. Initially, Chew did not want to disclose whether he owned shares in ByteDance. However, he later confirmed that he did but attempted to downplay the connection.
China’s government has stated that it would oppose any US plan to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, an action that authorities in the US are reportedly considering. But when one representative, Neal Dunn, asked Chew whether TikTok spied on America at the request of Beijing, Chew declined.
Is TikTok facing hypocrisy?
Throughout the hearing, Mr. Chew generally refrained from pushing back against members of Congress. However, there were a few rare moments where he did effectively defend TikTok. For instance, when questioned about the app’s use of user data, he made a pointed comment, stating, “With all due respect, American companies don’t have a great track record with data… Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.” Although it was a barbed remark, it was a reasonable point to make. In 2018, the harvesting of Facebook users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy, and other third-party apps caused an uproar.
Rare bipartisan unity against TikTok
During the congressional hearing, both Republicans and Democrats criticised TikTok, and the level of distrust and scepticism expressed by all parties was striking. Republican Congressman Buddy Carter welcomed Mr. Chew to “the most bipartisan committee in Congress,” while Republican Dan Crenshaw thanked him for bringing both sides together. It was unusual to see so many politicians, who typically disagree on most issues, wholeheartedly agree on the fact that TikTok was a security threat.
After the hearing, TikTok expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of attention paid to the platform’s efforts to ensure data security. Additionally, a TikTok spokesperson pointed out that the livelihoods of the five million businesses on the platform and the First Amendment implications of banning a platform used by 150 million Americans were not discussed by the committee members.
At the same time, some of the attendees there accused TikTok of promoting contents that are harmful to the children’s mental wellbeing. Even allegations are made, like that TikTok promotes the sale of illegal drugs and exploits sexual vulnerabilities too.
Democrat representative Kathy Castor said, “There were possibilities for the authority to design TikTok in a kid-friendly way. But it didn’t meet the need; rather, TikTok is now becoming a platform that increasingly addicts children, and of course that is not a good sign.”