TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress on Thursday to address concerns over the company’s relationship with China and its data privacy practices. Chew reassured lawmakers that the company would never share US user data with China and has never received a request to do so. He also asserted that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is not an agent of China or any other country.
Lawmakers from both political parties pressed Chew on TikTok’s relationship with China, its moderation of disturbing content, and its plans to build trust in the US market. Several representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on young users and questioned the company’s claims about protections against social media addiction.
During his testimony, Chew cited a report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab, claiming that the organization definitively found no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. However, Citizen Lab’s director responded on Twitter, criticizing the characterization and stating that the organization had no visibility into what happened to user data once it was collected and transmitted back to TikTok’s servers.
Prior to the hearing, Chew announced that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the US, a sizable jump up from its last reported numbers. The milestone underlines concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and serves as a threat that a US ban would outrage users and creators alike.
The committee pressed Chew over measures that TikTok is taking to protect kids on the app. It noted that the hearing is the latest effort to make tech companies accountable for their negative societal impacts. Lawmakers also emphasized worries that TikTok parent company ByteDance is based in China with Chinese ownership, raising concerns about potential leverage by the Chinese government.
While there is no evidence that China is harvesting data on Americans or intentionally shaping political behaviour through its algorithms, there is reason to be concerned that the company’s privacy practices are not airtight. An internal investigation last year confirmed that employees at TikTok’s Beijing headquarters intended to track US journalists via their TikTok activity in an effort to uncover the source of internal leaks. This incident prompted probes from multiple federal agencies investigating the breach of user privacy and putting additional pressure on TikTok’s imperilled US business.