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US Legislators Quiz TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew At Congressional Hearing

US Legislators Quiz TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew At Congressional Hearing
U.S. legislators hammered TikTok's CEO on Thursday over suspected Chinese influence on the platform, claiming that the app's short videos were harming children's mental health, mirroring bipartisan fears about the app's sway over Americans.
CEO Shou Zi Chew's testimony before Congress did little to allay American concerns about TikTok's Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and fueled lawmakers' calls to ban the platform nationwide.
Chew repeatedly denied the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party during five hours of testimony, claiming the platform was doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its 150 million American users.
TikTok has been "building what amounts to a firewall to seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access for more than two years," according to Chew. "The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel," Chew said.
However, not a single lawmaker supported TikTok, citing Chew's evasive answers about China and their concerns about the app's power over American children.
Others accused TikTok of encouraging eating problems in youngsters, illegal drug sales, and sexual exploitation.
"TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids, but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits," said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, at the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee hearing.
Chew reacted to a slew of probing questions by claiming that the difficulties were "complicated" and not specific to TikTok.
The firm claims to have spent more than $1.5 billion on data security operations under the guise of "Project Texas," which now employs over 1,500 full-time personnel and has a contract with Oracle Corp to store TikTok's U.S. user data.
Yet, critics were not satisfied because the corporation did not declare any additional initiatives to protect privacy.
"We do not promote or censor anything at the behest of the Chinese government," Chew stated, referring to his Singaporean heritage.
He added: "It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government." He said the app strictly screens content that could harm children.
It is unclear how Congress would proceed following the hearing, or how quickly they will adopt legislation to increase the Biden administration's legal authority to prohibit TikTok.
Around 20 U.S. senators - 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans - have sponsored bipartisan legislation allowing President Joe Biden's administration an avenue to ban TikTok, and the app's fate has added a new wrinkle to Washington-Beijing relations.
This week, TikTok announced that the Biden administration had ordered that its Chinese owners renounce their shares or face a potential ban.
When asked about a potential divestiture, Chew stated that the issue was "not about ownership" and that US concerns could be addressed by moving data to its US storage facilities.
China's trade ministry stated that forcing TikTok's sale would "seriously harm the confidence of investors from all over the globe, including China, to invest in the United States," and that any sale would be opposed by China.
Some MPs used China's comments to refute TikTok's claim that it is independent of the Chinese government.
Congressman Neal Dunn asked Chew at Thursday's House hearing if ByteDance had spied on Americans at Beijing's direction. Chew said, "No."
Republican Dunn then inquired about claims in the United States media that a China-based team at ByteDance planned to utilize TikTok to track the whereabouts of specific U.S. residents, and he repeated his concern about whether ByteDance was spying.
"I don't think that spying is the right way to describe it," Chew said. He went on to describe the reports as involving an "internal investigation," but was cut off by Dunn, who called TikTok's widespread use "a cancer."
On Thursday, shares of US social media companies that compete with TikTok for advertising increased, with Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc (META.O) up 2.2% and Snap Inc up 3.1%.
"SNAP and META are up on idea that the CEO didn't do well and TikTok may be banned," said Thomas Hayes, chairman and managing member of Great Hill Capital. "I think the rumors of TikTok's demise may be greatly exaggerated."
Tony Cardenas, a Democrat, called Chew a "good dancer with words" and accused him of evading tough questions about evidence that the program has impacted children's mental health.
To minimize such content, Chew stated that the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence.
TikTok's efforts to curb the spread of disinformation on the platform, according to Democratic Congressman Diana DeGette, are failing.
"You gave me only generalized statements that you're investing, that you're concerned, that you're doing work. That's not enough for me. That's not enough for the parents of America," DeGette said.
Representative Gus Bilirakis presented the committee with a series of short TikTok films that appeared to glorify self-harm and death, or openly advise viewers to commit suicide.
"Your technology is literally leading to death," Bilirakis said. "We must save our children from big tech companies like yours, who continue to abuse and manipulate them for your own gain."
TikTok takes the subject of suicide and self-harm "very, very seriously," according to Chew.
TikTok is not available in China, where ByteDance's Mandarin version Douyin is available. Yet, the hearing was carefully followed in China, with associated news items garnering millions of views on the microblogging site Weibo, where many users showed sympathy for Shou and blasted US "hostility."
In a tweet on Thursday, Hu Xijin, a former editor-in-chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, wrote, "The US is plundering TikTok this time, but it is hypocritically going through the process of a hearing."
At a regular news briefing on Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry stated that it had never asked companies to collect or provide data from abroad to the Chinese government in a manner that breached local laws, and that the US was presuming TikTok's guilt and "unreasonably repressing" the company.
There was no comment available from ByteDance.

Christopher J. Mitchell

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