(WASHINGTON) — A high-stakes standoff between the U.S. government and social media app TikTok over a potential ban is set for a reckoning on Thursday when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before a committee of House lawmakers.
The China-based app, which counts more than 150 million U.S. users each month, has faced growing scrutiny from government officials over fears that user data could fall into the possession of the Chinese government and the app could be weaponized by China to spread misinformation.
There is no evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, but policymakers fear that the Chinese government could compel the company to do so.
Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:
Mar 23, 1:12 PM EDT
Heated questions over internal memo calling on TikTok employees to ‘downplay’ China ties
Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., directed heated questions at Chew over an internal memo at TikTok that called on employees to “downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI.”
Cammack displayed an excerpt of the memo, first reported by Gizmodo, on a placard behind her.
“You’ve said repeatedly that there is no threat, that this is a platform for entertainment and for fun,” Cammack said, pointing her finger at Chew. “Why, if you had nothing to hide, would you need to downplay the association with ByteDance and China?”
Shou replied: “Congresswoman, I have not seen that memo.”
“You cannot answer that question, Mr. Shou,” Cammack said.
Mar 23, 12:41 PM EDT
House member on TikTok’s misinformation plan: ‘That’s not enough for me’
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asked a series of questions about the spread of misinformation on TikTok, citing a viral post in 2021 that falsely instructed viewers on how to make antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine from grapefruit and lemon peel.
“What is TikTok doing to try to strengthen its review to keep this information from coming across to people?” DeGette asked.
Chew said misinformation violates TikTok’s rules but acknowledged that the app fails to remove every false post. “I don’t think we can sit here and say we’re perfect,” he said.
“We invest a significant amount in our content moderation work,” Chew said.
DeGette later said: “I’m going to stop you right now. I asked you specifically how you were trying to increase your review of this, and you gave me only generalized statements that you’re investing, that you’re concerned, that you’re doing more.”
“That’s not enough for me,” she added. “That’s not enough for the parents of America.”
Mar 23, 11:58 AM EDT
Chew says US should ‘preserve’ Section 230
Facing questions about harmful acts allegedly prompted by TikTok posts, Chew said he supports continued liability protection for social media platforms as a means of protecting free speech.
Liability protection, stipulated in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, safeguards social media platforms and other sites from legal responsibility that could result from content posted by users.
“[Section] 230 has been very important for freedom of expression on the internet,” Chew said. “It’s one of the commitments we’ve made to this committee and our users.”
“I do think it’s important to preserve that,” he added.
Mar 23, 11:35 AM EDT
Chew grilled over China’s reported opposition to sale of TikTok
Hours before Chew began testimony on Thursday, China said that a sale of TikTok by China-based parent company ByteDance would require the approval of the Chinese government, the Wall Street Journal reported.
At the hearing, lawmakers asked Chew about the report.
“Despite your assertions to the contrary, China certainly thinks it is in control of TikTok and its software,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas. “Is that not correct?”
Chew replied, “TikTok is not available in mainland China, and today we’re currently headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore.”
“I’m not saying that the founders of ByteDance are not Chinese, nor am I saying that we don’t make use of Chinese employees, just like many other companies around the world,” he added.
Mar 23, 11:12 AM EDT
Chew faces repeated questions over TikTok’s China ties
In an early exchange, Chew faced repeated questions about TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government and alleged content moderation on its behalf.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers asked Chew about a process known as “heating content,” in which a social media promotes or moderates posts that appear on its platform.
“In your current or previous positions in Chinese companies, have employees engaged in heating content for users outside of China?” McMorris Rodgers asked.
“Our heating process is approved by our local teams in various countries,” Chew responded, noting that potentially controversial content, such as posts about the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, is currently present on the app.
McMorris Rodgers appeared to doubt the veracity of the remark, saying, “I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime.”
Mar 23, 10:48 AM EDT
TikTok CEO addresses lawmaker concerns over data safety and manipulation
Chew addressed lawmaker concerns over data safety and content manipulation in opening remarks, emphasizing steps taken by the company to protect user data.
Chew touted Project Texas, an ongoing effort that he says keeps all data on U.S. users within the country through a partnership with Austin-based cloud computing company Oracle.
“Trust is about actions we take,” Chew said. “We will firewall protect the U.S. data from unwanted foreign access.”
“TikTok will remain a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” he added.
Mar 23, 10:56 AM EDT
Hearing opens with bipartisan criticism of TikTok
Opening remarks at the House hearing echoed bipartisan criticism of TikTok that has grown on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
“TikTok surveils us all,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, chair of the committee.
After McMorris Rodgers finished her comments, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, the senior Democratic member, said: “I agree with much of what you said.”
“While TikTok videos provide a new fun way for people to express their creativity and enjoy the videos of others, the platform also threatens the health, privacy and security of the American people,” Pallone added. “I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the threats it poses to Americans in its current form.”
Mar 23, 9:53 AM EDT
TikTok CEO will likely face opposition from lawmakers
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will likely encounter sharp criticism from some members of the Republican-led House committee, which oversees energy and commerce.
A number of Republican members of Congress have backed a ban of the app.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, a separate body, voted earlier this month to approve a bill that would give Biden the authority to ban TikTok.
The Biden administration this month endorsed a different bipartisan bill, which does not specifically target TikTok but empowers the federal government to ban electronics or software with foreign ties, such as TikTok.
Stiffening its stance further, the Biden administration last week demanded that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, sell its stake in the app or risk getting banned, the company and a U.S. official previously told ABC News.
Mar 23, 9:39 AM EDT
TikTok CEO expected to directly confront possible ban
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will address a potential ban, outlining how such a measure would ultimately harm the U.S. economy, according to his prepared remarks posted on the House committee’s website.
TikTok hosts accounts for 5,000 U.S.-based businesses and employs 7,000 workers across the country, Chew said in a video posted on Tuesday.
“We do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150 million Americans, and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem,” his prepared remarks say.
Chew plans to tout Project Texas, an ongoing effort that he says keeps all data on U.S. users within the country through a partnership with Austin, Texas-based cloud computing company Oracle.
“Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives. But we do have an alternative,” Chew will say.
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