TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew told a congressional panel Thursday its owner is not an “agent” of communist-led China – amid growing U.S. concerns the immensely popular social media site is a national security threat and omnipresent danger to teens’ mental health.
“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the GOP-led House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in her opening statement. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation.”
Chew, in his first congressional testimony, said the short-form video app prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied allegations that it’s a national security risk and a tool of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Let me state this unequivocally, ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” said Chew, according to the Associated Press.
He also reiterated the company’s plan to protect U.S. user data by storing it on servers maintained and owned by the software giant Oracle.
The hearing also took place amid a larger, growing political schism between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology and spying – particularly after a China surveillance ballon was caught in February traversing the U.S.
Efforts to ban TikTok over such concerns began in earnest late last year when GOP governors, led by South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, banned the app from government-issued phones and other electronic devices. The federal government has since imposed a similar ban – and President Biden is now considering a total U.S. ban.
TikTok, with 150 million American users, has for years faced accusation that its Chinese ownership means the CCP has access to user data.
In addition, four employees were fired last summer for accessing data on two journalists and people connected to them, while attempting to track down the source of a leaked report about the company, according to the Associated Press.
On Thursday, committee member Democrat Rep. John Sarbanes also asked Chew what TikTok plans to do about concerns on extended periods of scrolling through video content – much of which highlighted beauty and fabulous lifestyles – contributing to what alarms study finds about teen anxiety, depression and suicide.
“We gotta address what the big tech companies like TikTok are doing because those are platforms that expose children and teens to additional additional risks,” Sarbanes said.
“The more time that middle and high-schoolers spend on social media, the evidence is the more likely they are to experience depression and anxiety. And this is particularly troubling since apparently 16% of American teenagers report that they use TikTok “almost constantly.”
Chew responded: “We do want to be leading in terms of safety of our users, particularly among teenagers.”
President Donald Trump in 2020 vowed to ban TikTok.
Several U.S. public universities have also banned the app from their devices and Wi-Fi and the Justice Department and the FBI are investigating TikTok and ByteDance, including allegations that company employees spied on journalists, according to NBC News.
Top TikTok executives and their lobbyists in recent weeks and months have been briefing members of Congress, in part about a $1.5 billion called Project Texas, a roughly 2-year-old plan to reportedly bolster data security for U.S.-based users that would satisfy lawmakers and avoid a ban, with TikTok owners not appearing to be willing sell their stake in the app.
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