TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew faced roughly five hours of questioning by dozens of lawmakers in a high-stakes hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday about the safety and security of the immensely popular app.
Republicans and Democrats alike grilled the 40-year-old Chew about China’s relationship with his company, data privacy, possible teen addiction to the app, misinformation and fentanyl.
Front and center were concerns that TikTok’s parent company Bytedance might be sharing data from U.S. users with the Chinese government.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you and manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rodgers asked Chew to say “with 100% certainty” that neither Chinese authorities nor employees of TikTok parent company ByteDance can use the app to spy on Americans, or promote content favorable to Chinese interests.
Chew said TikTok does not promote or remove content at the request of Chinese authorities. He said the app is “free from any manipulation from any government.”
Rodgers shot back: “If you can’t say it 100% certain, I take that as a no.”
Chew’s appearance comes soon after White House officials told TikTok that it must divest from ByteDance, or face a severe punishment, including the possibility of a ban. A growing chorus of bipartisan lawmakers view TikTok as a threat. They fear China’s authoritarian regime could use the app to spy on, or blackmail, the millions of Americans who use it every day.
After the hostile hearing, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the day had been “dominated by political grandstanding” that didn’t acknowledge TikTok’s current attempts to address the issues raised by the lawmakers.
“Also not mentioned today by members of the committee: the livelihoods of the 5 million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans,” Oberwetter said in a statement.
While U.S. officials have not offered any evidence that Chinese authorities have accessed the information of Americans on the app, national security experts say it is a real possibility.
Likewise, the Chinese government has not been shown to have ever influenced the app’s recommendation algorithm, though experts also say it is hypothetically possible.
TikTok did admit employees in China accessed the data of a handful of U.S. journalists who were reporting on company leaks — an incident now being investigated by Justice Department, according to Forbes.