At his first Congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Chew tried to downplay TikTok’s ties to China and parent company ByteDance. But lawmakers at the House Energy and Commerce Committee were far from satisfied with his answers.
In her opening statements, committee chair Representative Cathy Rodgers said that TikTok should be banned. "ByteDance is beholden to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], and ByteDance and TikTok are one and the same," she said.
Chew, who in his written testimony said that “ByteDance is not an agent of China” repeatedly pointed to Project Texas, the company’s sweeping plan to lock down US users’ data in the United States. But lawmakers on the committee were skeptical of the plan, which TikTok officials have said would do more to protect users than an outright ban.
Chew repeated multiple times that US user data would be inaccessible to employees in other countries “after Project Texas” is completed later this year. Still, committee members were skeptical of the plan, which has been in the works for more than a year. Rodgers called it a “marketing scheme,” Representative Frank Pallone said "Project Texas is simply not acceptable," and Representative Angie Craig said the plan “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The more than five-hour showdown between Chew and lawmakers, who have found suspicion of TikTok to be a rare source of bipartisan agreement, comes as US officials have told the company it could ban the app if it doesn’t separate itself from ByteDance.
As with previous hearings with social media executives, lawmakers pressed Chew for yes or no answers to complex questions, and grew frustrated when he declined to give one. In one exchange, Representative Tony Cardenas asked Chew whether ByteDance was a Chinese company. He would only admit that it was a “global” firm with a Chinese founder. In another, Representative Debbie Lesko asked if he would agree with a statement that the Chinese government persecutes the Uighur population in China. He would only say that "it's deeply concerning to hear about all the kinds of human rights abuse" and tried to pivot to saying those statements are allowed on TikTok.
And Chew dodged other questions about the inner workings of ByteDance and its China-based employees. He was sharply criticized for his response to a question about whether ByteDance employees had spied on American journalists. “I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it,” Chew said. “This is ultimately an internal investigation.” (TikTok was quick to point out Chew denied ‘spying’ had happened at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.)
The hearing was also notably different than previous hearings with other social media company CEOs because the vast majority of lawmakers are not active on TikTok. Not all of their questions were nuanced, though. At one point, Representative Richard Hudson demanded to know whether TikTok can “access the home WiFi network.” And multiple lawmakers asked why TikTok’s moderation practices are different from the aggressive censorship of its Chinese counterpart, Douyin.
Beyond national security concerns, several lawmakers also raised the issue of teen safety, including TikTok’s content moderation practices and how it deals with viral “challenges.” Chew often pointed to recent updates like TikTok’d addition of a STEM-themed feed, new screentime settings and algorithm tweaks to limit “repetitive patterns” of potentially harmful content.
But, after more than five hours of questioning, it seemed his testimony hadn’t done much to persuade the members of the committee that Project Texas will be able to address their concerns.
For now, TikTok’s future is uncertain, and even Chew seemed unwilling to speculate. Chinese officials said Thursday they oppose a sale of TikTok. When asked in the hearing if he agreed with those comments, Chew instead pointed to Project Texas."We will need to look at this because Project Texas is designed to move forward here in the United States and we are not discussing this," he said.