TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified Thursday at a congressional hearing over concerns about user data collected by the popular video-sharing app and potential Chinese spying.
Under his helm, TikTok reached 150 million users in the U.S., the majority of them teens and young adults who are attracted to the app’s simple interface and addictive algorithm that serves up short videos on just about any imaginable topic.
Lawmakers have said they’re worried about American data falling into the hands of the Chinese government and claim it threatens national security and user privacy and could be used to promote pro-Beijing propaganda and misinformation.
Shu also explained the sale or divestment of TikTok would need to be done in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations because it involves “technology export issues and administrative licensing procedures.”
The Chinese government considers some advanced technology — including content recommendation algorithms — to be critical to its national interest. In December, Chinese officials proposed tightening the rules that govern the sale of that technology to foreign buyers.
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.
Washington has already made up its mind about TikTok
The hearing, which lasted for more than five hours, kicked off with calls from a lawmaker to ban the app in the United States and remained combative throughout. It offered a vivid display of the bipartisan push to crack down on the popular short-form video app and the company’s uphill battle to improve relations with Washington.
Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, opened Thursday’s hearing by telling Shou: “Your platform should be banned.”
“Still, we have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem,” Chew said. “Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action.”
TikTok doesn’t operate in China. But since the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction, the theory goes that ByteDance, and thus indirectly, TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with a broad range of security activities, including possibly the transfer of TikTok data.
Much of Chew’s attempts to stress that his company is not an arm of the Chinese government appeared to fall on deaf ears. Numerous members of Congress interrupted the chief executive’s testimony to say they simply don’t believe him.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Rep. McMorris Rodgers.
WHAT IS HIS BACKGROUND?
Chew, 40, is a native of Singapore, where he lives with his wife, Vivian Kao, and their two children. He graduated in 2006 from University College London and worked for two years at Goldman Sachs before moving to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard Business School. Chew had a two-year internship with Facebook.
After earning his MBA, he became a partner at venture capital firm DST Global, where he worked for five years and helped facilitate investment in the company that became ByteDance. He then worked for five years at Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone company, before being appointed TikTok CEO in 2021, replacing Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive. Chew reports to ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo.
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