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26 Mar

TikTok Faces First Congressional Appearance

Like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and other tech honchos before him, TikTok’s Shou Chew faced aggressive questioning in his first testimony before Congress on Thursday.

Lawmakers’ criticisms of technology platforms have been bubbling over currently typically, but particularly in relation to the Chinese-owned social video platform. Amid calls to ban the app, Chew, TikTok’s chief executive officer, sat in the new seat because the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled him concerning the data it collects from American users — of a couple of billion users worldwide, 150 million or more are within the U.S. — who has access and the way it would protect that.

However it wasn’t an easy fact-finding inquiry. The corporate, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has at all times delineated its American business from the Chinese operation, nevertheless it was clear during Thursday’s proceedings that Congress doesn’t imagine it. In truth, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the committee, minced no words, telling Chew that: “Your platform ought to be banned,” and that Chew will probably say anything to stop it, but “we aren’t buying it. In truth, if you have fun the 150 million American users on TikTok, it emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act. That’s 150 million Americans that the [Chinese Communist Party] can collect sensitive information on.”

Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) said, “I still contend that TikTok is the spy in Americans’ pockets.”

The corporate has been here before. The Trump administration aimed to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok, relinquishing control to U.S. firms, or face a ban. The matter fell somewhat silent throughout the transition to President Biden’s administration, but has been heating up again since last summer.

For Chew’s first appearance before the House, he recycled an old talking point, emphasizing that the app, as a U.S.-based business that operates independently, isn’t beholden to China. “TikTok itself isn’t available in mainland China,” he said in his opening remarks. “We’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and now we have 7,000 employees within the U.S. today.”

He acknowledged concerns about foreign access to U.S. consumers’ data and “manipulation” of the platform and explained that TikTok addressed those fears with concrete actions and plans to do much more.

Under the previous administration, an acquisition cope with Oracle Corp., Walmart Inc. and other investors was hatched but fell apart. But ever since, TikTok has been working with Oracle to have one other set of eyes on the info. Internally, the measure is taken into account a safeguard, and in keeping with Chew, the corporate intends to maneuver all of its data warehousing and monitoring to American soil.

That doesn’t appear to appease lawmakers’ concerns, as renewed calls to banish the platform boil once again.

“Last month you announced that TikTok would expand access to its research or API. But I’m concerned that your latest policy may very well be more bark than bite.…I’ve heard directly from parents in my home state of Massachusetts, independent researchers, [that] not only other tech firms like Oracle, [but others] have to have the ability to guage how TikTok’s algorithm is making decisions to advertise content,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass.

To a line of questioning from Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., about China’s access to the info, Chew explained that he has seen no sign of that. She reacted by calling it “preposterous.” Others apparently agree, as quite a few countries, including the U.S., have prohibited the app on government devices as a result of security concerns, and countries like India banned this app and others tied to China completely.

The CEO admitted at one point that TikTok does work with some China-based staffers from ByteDance, they usually could have some access to U.S. app data. But TikTok is working on a $1.5 billion risk mitigation plan called Project Texas, which can end that access.

Up to now, the brands and agencies WWD spoke to haven’t modified their social media strategies due to intensifying glare on TikTok. However it’s unclear how which may change in the long run. Chew responded to lots of the inquiries by saying he would get back to the members with more specifics later, which doesn’t do much now to quell the uncertainty of its fate within the U.S.

Internally, U.S.-based TikTok employees claim that they aren’t rattled by Washington’s machinations, so there’s no impact on their day-to-day operations — which incorporates developing and supporting TikTok shopping tests ahead of an eventual full rollout. However it’s hard to assume those plans being immune for long, if Washington has its way and institutes a ban. They’d likely be significantly impacted, if not scuttled, by whatever measures Congress ultimately decides to take.

Understandably, the stakes are high for Chew, so it’s no surprise that he repeatedly emphasized the separation of powers contained in the organization. But representative after representative stated that they only don’t imagine him.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., laid it out in blunt fashion: “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.”

One other key a part of Chew’s defense framed TikTok’s practices as being in step with data “that’s ceaselessly collected by many other firms in our industry,” he said. Independent research appears to support that. Various projects evaluated the matter and concluded that the app appears to gather the identical kind of knowledge as other popular social networks.

In other words, TikTok claims that it acts the identical way as other technology giants. But even when it could persuade Congress of it, that will not be a winning argument, given Washington’s ongoing scrutiny of huge tech firms corresponding to Meta and Google.

Representatives corresponding to Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, leaned into the same aspect of the platform: its virality and influence on consumers, especially younger users.

“[It’s] the popular platform of young Americans, they usually use it for every kind of creative and essential things.…Most individuals using TikTok don’t realize that TikTok is collecting data about their keystrokes or about their browsing history on other sites and so rather more,” Fulcher said, agreeing with colleagues “that we want a comprehensive set of knowledge privacy laws here within the country.”

Chew denied engaging in any keystroke logging, apart from security measures like identifying bots.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Democratic rating member of the committee, stated that “research has found that TikTok’s algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.”

Others called out dangerous TikTok challenges, just like the “blackout challenge” or “choking challenge,” which led to a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl’s death, and emphasized concern over content moderation that permits the potential for self-harm to get through.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., likened Chew to Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg as one other tech bigwig who brings a whole lot of words to Congress, but not a whole lot of information. Reportedly, the TikTok CEO went through many hours of coaching to organize for Thursday’s testimony.

The array of questions — and jabs — got here from either side of the aisle, a fact so notable that it got here up several times.

“Mr. Chew, I’ve got at hand it to you. You’ve actually done something that, within the last three to 4 years, has not happened, apart from the exception of perhaps Vladimir Putin,” said Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas. “You have got unified Republicans and Democrats. And if just for a day, we’re actually unified because now we have serious concerns.”

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