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TikTok CEO Grilled by US Congress

The CEO of TikTok has appeared before Congress amid growing suspicion towards the Chinese-owned app by the US government. Credit: Nordskov Media / Flickr / Public Domain

On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend the social media giant against a possible ban in the US.

The US government has grown increasingly anxious over alleged spying activities conducted by TikTok on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as broader data privacy concerns and the safety of younger users.

Over 150 million Americans use TikTok every month but there is growing cross-party consensus in Washington that the Chinese-owned company poses several problems. US President Joe Biden’s administration has suggested that the app could be banned outright if it is not sold to a domestic buyer.

TikTok scrutinized at hearing

US Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum probed the Chinese-owned social media company’s CEO with difficult questions this morning. The airing of suspicions about the popular app has been a rare showing of common ground between Republican and Democrat lawmakers who have otherwise grown increasingly partisan.

Cathy Rodgers, a Republican who chairs the committee, has argued that TikTok ought to be banned on the grounds that it represents a security threat, breaches the data privacy of its users, and is a “weapon” of the CCP.

“TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” said Rodgers during her opening statement.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values. Your platform should be banned,” she continued.

The Democrats have also been highly critical of the app, despite a significant portion of their younger voter base being avid users of the platform. The Biden administration’s position is that ByteDance – TikTok’s parent company – should sell the US-based version of the app to a domestic buyer.

US national security officials have long warned that the app poses a distinct threat because the CCP can use it to gather and surveil the data of American users to access sensitive information held by government employees.

Shou Zi Chew responds to questioning

It was certainly not an easy morning for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew as he faced an onslaught of questioning from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

He dismissed many of the concerns about the platform as “myths” and denied accusations that TikTok had shared the data of American users with the Chinese government.

“TikTok will be a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” Chew said.

When asked whether TikTok accesses home WiFi and whether the platform could gather data from other appliances connected to the same internet network, Chew responded that “we do not do anything that is beyond industry norms”, but also added that he would need to check before giving a more technical answer.

Potential consequences

TikTok is currently banned on all federal devices since Biden signed a bill last year. Use of the app on government devices is also prohibited by more than 30 US states. However, if Chew fails to sufficiently assuage Washington’s concerns, the app could be banned outright in the US.

For many users of the popular platform, a government crackdown on the app is an unappealing prospect, especially for “influencers” who profit from sharing content on TikTok.

It was reported that roughly a dozen teenage TikTokers, education professionals, and business owners appeared in Washington to discuss the positive impact the platform has on their lives.

TikTok’s competitors could certainly benefit from any restrictions placed on the app, or indeed any bad press which might discourage some potential users from downloading it.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp, would benefit the most from any fallout stemming from the hearing. In particular, Instagram and Facebook are in direct competition with TikTok, given the preponderance of short-form content on all three apps.

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