U.S. Congress hears TikTok concerns: China links, youth safety, and political grandstanding

Shou Chew

24th March 2023 – (Washington) On Thursday, the U.S. Congressional hearing on TikTok brought up several themes, including alleged links to China, youth safety, and accusations of “political grandstanding.”

The CEO of TikTok, Chew Shou Zi, faced questioning about the app’s data collection practices and its impact on children. Chew reassured lawmakers that TikTok does not gather precise GPS or health data and promised transparency about the information it does collect. Despite accusations of being a national security threat and an app operated in China, Chew refuted these claims, and assured lawmakers that US data would be separated and controlled under the Project Texas plan with Oracle.

Additionally, Chew addressed concerns about the app’s impact on children’s safety and mental health by highlighting measures taken to moderate harmful content and provide appropriate age settings and controls. However, some lawmakers were criticised for asking “silly questions” and engaging in “political grandstanding” during the hearing.

Chew repeatedly denied that the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party, and argued that the platform was doing everything to ensure the safety of its 150 million American users. However, the CEO failed to announce any new measures to safeguard privacy, which critics noted.

TikTok has been working on its data security efforts for over two years under “Project Texas”, which has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle Corp to store TikTok’s US user data. Chew stated that American data stored on American soil, by an American company, is overseen by American personnel. Nevertheless, lawmakers aired their concerns over the app’s power over U.S. children and accused TikTok of promoting content that encourages eating disorders, illegal drug sales and sexual exploitation.

Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, accused TikTok of being “aggressively addicting kids in the name of profits,” stating that the app could be designed to minimise harm to children. It is not clear how lawmakers will proceed after the hearing, or how quickly they might move to pass legislation to strengthen the Biden administration’s legal powers to ban TikTok. However, not a single lawmaker expressed support for TikTok, as Chew’s answers on China were deemed evasive.

Chew began his testimony by referring to his Singaporean roots, emphasising that TikTok does not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government. He added that the app screens content that could harm children and is committed to keeping TikTok free from manipulation by any government. The company has spent over US$1.5 billion on data security efforts, but lawmakers remain unconvinced.

Overall, the testimony did not ease concerns over TikTok’s ties to China and ByteDance, sparking fresh momentum for lawmakers to ban the app nationwide.