TikTok CEO to highlight efforts to protect user data in testimony to Congress
▶ Watch Video: Reporter says TikTok’s parent company accessed her data to try to see who she was meeting with
Washington — TikTok’s chief executive plans to tell a House committee Thursday that the social media giant is taking “real action” to address national security concerns from U.S. policymakers and stave off a potential ban in the U.S., according to his prepared testimony.
CEO Shou Zi Chew is likely to face intense questioning when he testifies before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday morning, with efforts to ban the widely popular social media app gaining momentum in Washington. The hearing will focus on TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, how the platform affects children, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” or CCP, according to the committee.
U.S. officials and national security experts have warned that TikTok, which has 150 million American users, could be used to spy on Americans or as a propaganda tool by the Chinese government. Advocates for banning the app in the U.S. say that TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, could be forced to share user data with the CCP.
Thursday’s hearing will be TikTok’s highest-profile opportunity to mitigate those national security fears. Chew plans to tell the panel that ByteDance “is not an agent of China or any other country,” and will say TikTok is building “what amounts to a firewall to seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access,” including the establishment of a new corporate entity to oversee the handling of U.S. user data.
“Today, U.S. TikTok data is stored by default in Oracle’s servers. Only vetted personnel operating in a new company, called TikTok U.S. Data Security, can control access to this data. Additionally, we have plans for this company to report to an independent American board with strong security credentials,” Chew will say. “The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel.”
Chew plans to assure lawmakers that TikTok’s approach has “never been to dismiss or trivialize” concerns about “unwanted foreign access to U.S. data and potential manipulation of the TikTok U.S. ecosystem.”
TikTok, like many other social media companies, collects users’ personal information, including phone numbers, email addresses, contacts and WiFi networks. ByteDance has said the company does not share information with the Chinese government, but U.S. officials counter that Chinese law requires the company, which is based in Beijing, to make the app’s data available to the CCP.
Chew will try to downplay ByteDance’s ties to the Chinese government, stressing in his testimony that the parent company has three Americans on its five-member board of directors and is majority-owned by institutional investors from around the world. He will also note that TikTok U.S. Data Security is incorporated in the U.S. and is “subject to the laws of the United States.”
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made,” Chew plans to say.
The Biden administration wants ByteDance to divest itself from the short-form video platform altogether to avoid a TikTok ban in the U.S. A TikTok spokesperson said recently that “divestment doesn’t solve the problem.”
The Justice Department is investigating ByteDance for possible spying on U.S. citizens, including journalists, CBS News confirmed last week. ByteDance said in a statement that it “strongly condemned” the actions of those involved and they were no longer employed by the company. Chew will tell lawmakers that TikTok “promptly took action, including a companywide disclosure, when we learned late last year that certain (now former) employees had accessed TikTok user data in an unsuccessful and misguided attempt to trace the source of a leak of confidential TikTok information,” according to his prepared testimony.
TikTok is already banned on federal government devices, including military devices, and a growing number of states are banning it on state government devices. Federal lawmakers have introduced several bills that seek to empower the administration to ban TikTok nationwide.
About half of Americans support a national ban, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Americans ages 18 to 34 were opposed to a ban, with 63% against and 33% in favor.
Not all lawmakers are supportive of a TikTok ban. Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York is organizing a press conference Wednesday with dozens of TikTok creators, including small business owners, educators and artists who say the app is vital to their livelihoods. Bowman told NBC News on Tuesday that fears over the app amount to “fearmongering.”