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TikTok CEO grilled by US Congress addressing app threat

TikTok’s CEO is being grilled over the app’s Chinese ownership, potential security concerns and threats to children’s mental health by the US Congress.

March 24, 2023
By David Shepardson
24 March 2023

TikTok’s chief executive faced tough questions from the US Congress members who are convinced the Chinese-owned short video app should be barred for being a “tool” of the Chinese Communist Party and because it carries content that can harm children’s mental health. 

CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress on Thursday capped a week of actions by the Chinese company aimed at convincing Americans and their lawmakers that the app creates economic value and supports free speech amid growing calls to ban the app.

TikTok, which has more than a billion monthly active users globally, was repeatedly hammered in the ongoing hearing where no MP offered any support. Many talked of a need to rein in the power held by the app over US children.

“TikTok could be designed to minimise the harm to kids but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, at the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee hearing.

Republicans and Democrats also raised numerous concerns about its potential to threaten US national security by sharing its data with the Chinese government.

Also on Thursday, the UK upgraded its ban on TikTok to include all devices on the government’s network over security concerns, not just phones, joining the US, Canada, Belgium and the European Commission.

A TikTok spokesperson called the action “misguided”, saying it was based on fundamental misconceptions about the company.

TikTok has said it has spent more than $US1.5 billion ($A2.2 billion) on what it calls rigorous data security efforts under the name “Project Texas” that currently has nearly 1500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle Corp to store TikTok’s US user data. It also says it rigorously screens content that could harm children.

Politicians rejected TikTok’s responses as insufficient.

When questioned over TikTok’s efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation, Chew said the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit such content.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said on Twitter the “TikTok CEO testimony so far we would characterise as a ‘mini disaster’ for this key moment for TikTok. TikTok is now poster child of the US/China tensions and lawmakers have a lot of q’s with not enough concrete answers.”

Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, set the tone of the hearing by saying, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable – from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” she said, adding that the Chinese Communist Party “is able to use (TikTok) as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.”

Chew, who began his testimony speaking about his own Singaporean roots, said, “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government.” He added: “It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government.”

But the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Frank Pallone, argued with that statement, saying, “You’re going to continue to gather data, you’re going to continue to sell data … and continue to be under the aegis of the Communist Party.”

Many US politicians want TikTok banned. TikTok last week said President Joe Biden’s administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.

China’s Ministry of Commerce at a briefing on Thursday said that “forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States. If the news is true, China will firmly oppose it.”

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