‘ByteDance is not an agent of China’: Key moments from TikTok CEO Chew Zi Shou’s US Congress hearing


It was not expected to be easy and TikTok CEO Chew Zi Shou tried his hardest to protect his company from a potential United States ban or forced sale during the US Congressional hearing on Thursday.

The hearing rarely deviated from its hostile note and dragged on for four-and-a-half hours, with one US Congressman pointing out that some people ran marathons quicker than that.

This was the first time that Chew Zi Shou — the 40-year-old CEO — who was an intern at Facebook many years ago, faced the public on such a large platform. In fact, as Associated Press reported that most Americans likely first heard of him when he released a video this week speaking directly to TikTok’s US users.

Through the duration of the hearing, which was held in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Chew repeatedly tried to resist allegations and claims about China’s influence over the app, with him saying at one point — “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.”

Here are the key takeaways from the hearing and what lies ahead for Chew Zi Shou and TikTok’s future in the United States.

TikTok and China

The concern about TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and the influence China wields over the company was the primary focus of US lawmakers at the hearing.

As Committee Chair Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said in her opening statement, “Mr Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security. TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, biometric data and more. … TikTok surveils us all. And the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole. We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.”

The committee members also asked Chew how frequently was he in contact with the Chinese Communist party.

At one point, Tony Cárdenas, a Democrat from California, asked Chew outright if TikTok is a Chinese company. Chew responded that TikTok is global in nature, not available in mainland China, and headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles.

When asked if TikTok spied on Americans citizens — a claim that emerged after reports stated that the company had accessed journalists’ information — Chew responded with “spying is not the right way to describe it”.

In order to allay fears about China having access to data collected by TikTok, Chew also spoke about a policy called ‘Project Texas’. According to this plan, TikTok has pledged to relocate all US user data to domestic servers and would also allow US tech firm Oracle to scrutinise the app’s source code and act as a third-party monitor.

Also Read: China’s data collection agent: TikTok’s insidious ways to collect data and share it with the CCP

However, this is not fully operational with Chew stating that ByteDance engineers in China do have access to data. “We rely on global interoperability, Chinese engineers have access to data,” he said.

TikTok CEO Chew Zi Shou takes notes as he testifies during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children. AP

‘What about Cambridge Analytica’

Chew did a credible job to defend TikTok and its data collection practices to the members of US Congress. At one point during the hearing, he said that the data TikTok collects is data “that’s frequently collected by many other companies in our industry.”

When grilled over TikTok’s data collection again, Chew didn’t hold back and said, “We are committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect. I don’t believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry.”

He also added in his defence, “With all due respect, American companies don’t have a great track record with data… Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”

The point was a well-made one. Harvesting of Facebook users’ personal information by British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica in 2018 caused a huge uproar that even spread to India.

TikTok’s impact on children

Apart from China’s influence on TikTok and claims that the app is being used by China to spread disinformation, lawmakers also expressed concerns about its impact on children.

New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Pallone said: “Research has found that TikTok’s algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Republican Gus Bilirakis of Florida also said there is a lack of adequate content moderation, which leaves room for kids to be exposed to content that promotes self-harm.

“Your technology is literally leading to death,” Bilirakis said to Chew.

Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes said young brains are not fully developed and are no match for TikTok’s technology. “It’s not a fair fight, the algorithms are on one side of the screen and human brains are on the other side of the screen,” he said.

Chew said that TikTok took these allegations and issues very seriously and was providing additional safeguards for younger users, including setting a new 60-minute default for daily time limit for those under the age of 18.

Also read: TikTok Troubles: Why security concerns about the platform keep causing worry

“We take this very seriously,” Chew said. “This is an industry-wide challenge, and we’re investing as much as we can. We don’t think it represents the majority of the users’ experience on TikTok, but it does happen.”

Interestingly, during this part of the hearing it was also revealed that Chew’s own children don’t use TikTok. When asked by Representative Nanette Barragán, a Democrat, whether or not his own children used TikTok, he said they didn’t because they lived in Singapore where the app is not available to those below the age of 13. He did clarify he would let his children use it if they were in America.

Despite concerns over the app's safety, American users have defended it and even gathered outside the Capitol to support it. AP

Uncertainty over a ban

TikTok has already been banned on government devices and across other countries too. Thursday’s hearing has left everyone guessing if the app will be banned across the US where it has 150 million monthly users.

But there are questions about how effective a ban would be even if it were possible. By some estimates, the Chinese government has already collected personal information on at least 80 per cent of the US population via various means. So a ban might limit the damage going forward to some degree, but the Chinese government has already collected a significant amount of data.

With inputs from agencies

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‘ByteDance is not an agent of China’: Key moments from TikTok CEO Chew Zi Shou’s US Congress hearing
‘ByteDance is not an agent of China’: Key moments from TikTok CEO Chew Zi Shou’s US Congress hearing
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