TikTok CEO grilled by skeptical U.S. lawmakers

WASHINGTON: A nearly six-hour grilling of TikTok’s CEO by U.S. lawmakers on Thursday brought the platform’s 150 million U.S. users no closer to an answer whether the app should be wiped from their devices.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing came after the Biden Administration indicated it may ban the app outright in the U.S. if its Chinese owner, ByteDance, refused to sell its stake in TikTok to an American company.

China will firmly oppose a forced sale of TikTok, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) said on Thursday, adding that the sale or divestiture of TikTok is subject to Chinese laws.

Although TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean who speaks fluent English, repeatedly emphasized that TikTok hires over 7,000 employees in the U.S. and it does not operate in the Chinese mainland at all, many U.S. congressmen seem to have only one thought: ban TikTok.

In Thursday’s hearing, U.S. lawmakers pressed Chew over data security and harmful content, responding skeptically during a tense committee hearing to his assurances that the hugely popular video-sharing app prioritizes user safety and should not be banned due to its Chinese connections.

Chew spent most of the hearing attempting to push back assertions that TikTok, or its Chinese parent company ByteDance, are tools of the Chinese government, arguing the platform was doing everything to ensure safety for its 150 million American users.

Shelly Palmer, a professor of advanced media at Syracuse University who studies social network business models, said Chew did the best he could given the grilling he received from lawmakers who “in my opinion were not actually listening” but instead were grandstanding.

The U.S. congress, the White House, U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states have already banned the use of the app from official devices. Similar bans have been imposed in other countries including Denmark, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, as well as the European Union. A complete TikTok ban in the U.S. would risk political and popular backlash from its young user base and civil liberties groups, said U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw.

David Kennedy, a former government intelligence officer who runs the cybersecurity company TrustedSec, said he agrees with restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones but that a nationwide ban might be too extreme.

“We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they going to start banning us now?” Kennedy said. “It could escalate very quickly.”

“If you think the U.S. needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don’t care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform,” Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

Will TikTok access U.S. home wifi networks?  

U.S. Congressman Richard Hudson asked Chew if TikTok accesses U.S. home wifi networks.

“Only if the user turns on the wifi, I’m sorry, I may not understand that,” Chew answered.

Hudson asked, “If I have TikTok on my phone and my phone is on my home wifi network, does TikTok access that network?”

“It will have to, to get the access to [the] network, it gets connections to the internet, if that’s the question,” Chew said in response.

“Is it possible it can access other devices on that home wifi network?” Hudson further asked.

“We do not do anything that is beyond any industry norms. I believe the answer to your question is No,” said Chew.

A national security risk?

In a bipartisan effort to rein in the power of a major social media platform, U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers hurled questions on topics including TikTok’s content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from China, and its spying on journalists.

“Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, said in her opening statement.

Chew told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and denied it’s a national security risk.

TikTok says 60 percent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as the Carlyle Group. “Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” said Chew.

But for many others, it is. The Biden administration has reportedly demanded TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company to avoid a nationwide ban. China has said it would oppose those attempts.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a separate committee hearing Thursday that he believes TikTok is a security threat, and “should be ended one way or another.”

Chew said that 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.

The bottom line is this: “American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel.”

China urges U.S. to cease unreasonable suppression of foreign companies


China has urged the United States to cease its unreasonable suppression of foreign enterprises, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Friday.

While commenting on the attendance of the CEO of social media platform TikTok at a U.S. Housing hearing earlier Thursday,  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning lashed out at the U.S. move to use so-called “national security concerns” as a pretext to suppress foreign companies like Chinese-owned short-form video app TikTok.

Mao stated China’s position on the protection of data privacy and security and pushed back against the U.S. suppression of foreign enterprises based purely on the “presumption of guilt.”

“What I would like to stress hereby is that the Chinese government attaches great importance to and protects data privacy and security in accordance with law. It has never and will not ask companies or individuals to collect or provide data information and intelligence located in foreign countries for the Chinese government in a way that violates local laws,” Mao said.

“So far, the U.S. government has not provided any evidence that TikTok poses a threat to U.S. national security, but it has repeatedly made the presumption of guilt against and unreasonably suppressed the relevant companies. We have also taken note that some members of the U.S. Congress call the attempt to ban TikTok constitutes xenophobic political persecution. The U.S. side should earnestly respect the market economy and the principle of fair competition, cease unreasonable suppression of foreign companies, and provide an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies to invest and operate in the U.S,” she said.


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