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TikTok CEO fails to convince Congress that the app is not a “weapon” for China

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For nearly five hours, Congress members of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over concerns about the platform’s risks to minor safety, data privacy, and national security for American users.

“The American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wa.) said in her opening statement, concluding that “TikTok is a weapon.”

Rodgers suggested that even for Americans who have never used the app, “TikTok surveils us all, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.”

In his testimony, Chew defended TikTok’s $1.5 billion solution to these concerns, Project Texas, as a more appropriate measure than forcing a sale of TikTok from its owner, China-controlled ByteDance, or banning TikTok in the US. Chew said that with Project Texas, TikTok has launched an “unprecedented” effort to be more transparent about its algorithm and data collection than any other big tech company.

“American companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy,” Chew reminded the committee while repeatedly telling Congress members that the questions that they had about TikTok reflected industry-wide problems that go well beyond one app.

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Chew also said that he’s seen “no evidence” that Project Texas—which he said would ensure TikTok data is behind a US firewall and out of China’s reach—doesn’t address Congress’ national security concerns. However, he refused to comment on a whistleblower report from Tech Workers Coalition, where a TikTok content moderator confirmed one of Congress’ worst suspicions: that ByteDance has access to user data that could be used to track and spy on Americans.

But Congress members like Jay Obernolte (R-Calif.)—who said he has more extensive experience with Internet technologies than many of his committee colleagues—led a swarm of Congress members disputing that Project Texas was the cure-all that Chew claimed. Obernolte said that, in his opinion, it was not “technically possible” for Project Texas to keep American user data out of China’s reach. Not only could nefarious actors working within Project Texas potentially access user data for China, but also there are concerns that if TikTok is not fully transparent about its data sales, China could potentially purchase US user data.

Because The Wall Street Journal reported that China has stated that it will act to stop the forced sale of TikTok, Chew was pressed on how involved China—and the CCP—might be in TikTok operations and whether he thought China had the power to stop a sale. Chew did not directly deny that China could step in.

After being called “evasive” during his testimony by several committee members, Chew shared some insights into TikTok-China connections, confirming that he directly reports to China-owned ByteDance’s CEO Liang Rubo and affirming that he personally owns shares in ByteDance. Although Chew said that ByteDance does not require that employees disclose this information, he also seemed to agree that it’s likely that many ByteDance employees are CCP members.

Things got personal for Chew—who lives in Singapore, not China—when Congress members pressured him to disclose his own connections to the CCP, which he repeatedly evaded. He reminded the committee that his testimony was exclusively about TikTok. He also consistently resisted responding to several committee members asking if he condemned Chinese human rights abuses against a Turkish ethnic minority in China, the Uyghurs.

“You have absolutely tied yourself in knots to avoid criticizing CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs,” Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) told Chew.

Nothing that Chew said seemed to weaken the bipartisan united front against TikTok that was presented by committee members.

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Rick Allen (R-Ga.) pointedly said that Chew gave him “no reason to believe” that TikTok would comply with any American orders that conflict with what the CCP wants. Although Chew continually denied that the CCP controlled TikTok—while remaining vague on many other questions—Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) said it was clear to her that “ByteDance puts China first and America last.” Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told Chew that because the WSJ report said that China’s commerce minister has confirmed that China could block a sale of TikTok, “all of what you’ve been saying about the distance between TikTok and China has been said to be not true.”

There were many questions that Chew failed to answer, promising instead to follow up. Committee members were given 10 business days to submit written questions to TikTok. Outstanding questions covered everything from how (and to whom) TikTok sells user data, to how much TikTok revenue ByteDance retains, and how many tech resources are shared between TikTok and other ByteDance-owned companies.

In his written testimony that was prepared ahead of the hearing, Chew maintained that “ByteDance is not an agent of China” and made four promises to both Congress and to American TikTok users. He vowed to keep user safety as a top priority, to prevent unauthorized foreign access to American user data, to prevent any government from manipulating TikTok content, and to be transparent and accountable for all these promises by giving access to independent third-party monitors to review changes in TikTok code.

But after Chew provided his first testimony ever to Congress, Marc Veasey (D-Texas) told Chew that he considered TikTok’s assurances “worthless.”

Perhaps Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) summed up the disappointing hearing best when he told Chew, “This hasn’t been a fun day” for TikTok or for Congress.

TikTok did not respond to Ars’ request for comment on the hearing.

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Source: Ars Technica

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