House Committee Rails Against TikTok as CEO Defends App: ‘Algorithm Preys on Vulnerable People’

House Energy and Commerce Committee members grilled Shou Zi Chew, expressing a willingness to ban the app over privacy issues

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 23: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. The hearing was a rare opportunity for lawmakers to question the leader of the short-form social media video app about the company's relationship with its Chinese owner, ByteDance, and how they handle users' sensitive personal data. Some local, state and federal government agencies have been banning use of TikTok by employees, citing concerns about national security. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew tried to allay concerns from Congress and the Biden Administration about Chinese government influence on the company, and how the app could be used for propaganda and to capture personal information from users.

The Biden Administration has suggested it might take actions to ban the social media app in the United States if ByteDance does not sell its ownership of TikTok to an American company. There are interested buyers, as the app has around 150 million U.S. users. Recently the company was accused of spying on American journalists.

Committee chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers opened the hearing with a searing rebuke of the app, warning Shou that “the world is watching.”

The staff report for the commerce committee advised that “TikTok’s surveillance capacity and practices require scrutiny given the platform’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” The staff report continued to state that “from 2014 to 2017 the CCP passed several laws requiring all Chinese tech companies to allow CCP officials access to user data.” The report stated that two out of three U.S. teens have used TikTok.

Chew has met with European officials, including the European Union Council, which also has proposed banning the app over security concerns. Countries in the EU, along with the United States, have banned the app on government phones and devices.

Chew, who received his MBA from Harvard, opened his defense by saying that the company is working with Oracle, an American based company, to protect US data.

“We have a commitment to be very transparent about the data we collect,” he said.

Committee member Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said the reports he has read do not show Chinese officials staying out of the business of ByteDance and TikTok.

“China certainly thinks it is in control of TikTok and its software,” Burgess said, adding that ByteDance and TikTok use the same attorneys, which Chew confirmed.

Chew held firm that he and TikTok are independent from the communist superpower.

“Since I have been CEO of TikTok, I have not had any discussions with Chinese government officials,” Chew told the committee. “Tiktok will remain a place for freedom of expression.”

Frank Pallone, ranking Democrat on the committee, said he favors legislation to limit TikTok to protect Americans who are “helpless” against this form of surveillance and data mining: “We must hold Big Tech accountable,” Pallone said. “Children and teens are particularly vulnerable. Congress must pass laws that protect the American people from this.”

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida, confronted Chew with a disturbing video posted on TikTok that mentioned the commerce committee and chair Rodgers, and showed a handgun being fired. The video was posted 41 days ago, Cammack said, adding that the committee meeting had not even been publicly announced yet.

“I think this is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are. You couldn’t take action after 41 days when a clear threat, a very violent threat to the chair woman of this committee and the members of this committee was posted on your platform,” Cammack said. “You know damn well that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or the 150 million users of your app because it’s an extension of the CCP.”

Committee member Paul Tonko, D-New York, said he is concerned about TikTok content portraying violence and suicide being targeted at younger viewers, “especially those with mental health issues.”

“Tiktok’s algorithm preys on vulnerable people,” Tonko said. “People’s personal struggles should not be fueled for TikToks profits.”