Industry insiders are pointing out that United States should not ban video sharing app TikTok despite lawmakers grilling its CEO Shou Zi Chew for five-years. It appears that U.S. lawmakers have shifted their focus to mental health of Americans from national security threat.
U.S. lawmakers have grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about Chinese influence over the platform and said its short videos were damaging children’s mental health, reflecting bipartisan concerns over the app’s power over Americans.
CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress did little to assuage U.S. worries over TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance and added fresh momentum to lawmakers’ calls to ban the platform nationwide, Reuters news report said.
Over five hours of testimony, Chew repeatedly denied the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party and argued the platform was doing everything to ensure safety for its 150 million American users, CNN said.
Why TikTok should not be banned
#1 US did not prove that TikTok shares sensitive data with China
#2 Bytedance is owned by several investors including American PE funds
#3 TikTok has already tied up with Oracle for data storage
#4 US should act first against Facebook / Google if mental health is a concern
#5 Americans love TikTok, banning the video sharing app will hurt their freedom
Chew used his testimony to stress TikTok’s independence from China and play up its US ties. “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China, we’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today,” he said in his opening remarks.
Meanwhile, TikTok is getting significant support from video creators, who generate revenue, and the young population, who spend hours on the video sharing platform. It is interesting to observe that the video sharing app is emerging as a major threat to US-based digital platforms such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
TikTok is not available in China. China-based parent company ByteDance is owned by several US-based private equity funds, several Americans, and others.
Chew said TikTok for more than two years has been building what amounts to a firewall to seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access. The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” Chew said.
US lawmakers did not offer any support for TikTok or sympathy for Chew’s reassurances, as they deemed his answers on China evasive and aired concerns over the power the app holds over U.S. children.
Others accused TikTok of promoting content that encourages eating disorders among children, illegal drug sales and sexual exploitation.
“TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids, but a decision was made to addict kids in the name of profits,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, at the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee hearing.
Chew responded to many pointed questions by saying the issues were complex and not unique to TikTok.
The company says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on data security efforts under the name Project Texas which has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle to store TikTok’s U.S. user data.
Critics feel that the company failed to announce any new efforts to safeguard privacy.
Chew, who began his testimony by referring to his 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.” He said the app strictly screens content that could harm 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.
Some 20 U.S. senators – 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans – have backed bipartisan legislation giving President Joe Biden’s administration a path to ban TikTok.
TikTok last week said the Biden administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.
When asked about a potential divestiture, Chew said the issue was not about the ownership and argued U.S. concerns could be addressed by moving data to its U.S. storage centers.
China’s commerce ministry said that forcing TikTok’s sale will damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States. China would oppose any sale. Some lawmakers cited China’s comments to reject TikTok’s contention that it is separate from the Chinese government.
At Thursday’s House hearing, Representative Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance has spied on Americans at Beijing’s request. Chew answered, “No.”
Republican Dunn then asked about U.S. media reports that a China-based team at ByteDance planned to use TikTok to monitor the location of specific U.S. citizens, and repeated his question about whether ByteDance was spying.
“I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it,” Chew said. He went on to describe the reports as involving an “internal investigation,” but was cut off by Dunn, who called TikTok’s widespread use “a cancer.”
Democratic lawmaker Tony Cardenas said Chew was a good dancer with words and accused him of avoiding tough questions on evidence that the app has harmed children’s mental health.
Chew said the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit such content.
Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat, said TikTok’s efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform were not working.
“You gave me only generalized statements that you’re investing, that you’re concerned, that you’re doing work. That’s not enough for me. That’s not enough for the parents of America,” DeGette said.
Representative Gus Bilirakis showed the committee a collection of short TikTok videos that appeared to glorify self-harm and suicide, or outright tell viewers to kill themselves.
“Your technology is literally leading to death,” Bilirakis said. “We must save our children from big tech companies like yours, who continue to abuse and manipulate them for your own gain.”
Chew told Bilirakis that TikTok takes the issue of suicide and self-harm “very, very seriously.”