TikTok CEO Takes Bipartisan Beating Over Data Privacy, But Users Aren’t Buying the Hype

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew listens to questions from U.S. representatives during his testimony at a Congressional hearing on TikTok in Washington, DC on March 23rd, 2023.


(Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In his first appearance before Congress, TikTok CEO Shou Chew sat through five hours of tense and often terse, suspicion-laden questioning from Republicans and Democrats during the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s hearing on the safety and security of the popular social media and content creation app.

Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) wasted no time setting the tone during her opening statement, calling the platform a “grave threat of foreign influence in American life” and “a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you.”

Chew, who was the sole witness during Thursday’s proceedings, was asked repeatedly if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was getting user information from TikTok through its Chinese-owned parent company ByteDance to spy on Americans.

In one exchange, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) insisted that the Chinese government is in possession of Americans’ user data and asked Chew how he can guarantee that data will be moved to the U.S. and protected. Chew responded, “I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data. They have never asked us. We have not provided.” To which Eshoo replied, “I find that actually preposterous.”

In his opening statement and throughout the course of the hearing, Chew told the committee about a plan to implement protections for the data of TikTok’s 150 million U.S. users called Project Texas. The plan would firewall user data and store it in the United States while using an American company to oversee the protection of that data. However, Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) scoffed saying, “This idea, this Project Texas is not acceptable.”

But while lawmakers were hammering Chew on issues around data privacy, child safety, and national security to justify banning the app, the Twittersphere was holding its own hearing on the targeting of TikTok being rooted in anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment and xenophobia.

Independent reporter and activist Erin Reed tweeted, “Let's be real fucking clear about a TikTok ban. It's all about the fact that there is a large quantity of trans youth, LGBTQ+ youth, finding themselves and people like them there. Republicans want this. The Heritage Foundation wants this. It's part of their same stupid goal.”

Alejandra Caraballo, a Harvard Law Instructor who’s had bylines in Wired and Slate called out the hypocrisy with a tweet that read, “Banning TikTok for privacy reasons is absurd when Meta can collect the same data and sell it to governments and foreign companies. Surveillance is apparently not an issue if it's done for profit. The fundamental problem is that the US has no meaningful data privacy laws.”

And Electronic Frontier Foundation cybersecurity director, Eva Galperin, tweeted, “If you think the US needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don’t care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform.”

Even award-winning performer Lizzo chimed in with a tweetto put it all in perspective saying, Hi! As we speak: - the ceo of tiktok is being interrogated by congress with intent to ban TikTok in America - anti lgbtqia legislation is being passed banning gender affirming health care & drag shows - Jim Crow era laws are being reinstated in Mississippi.”

Chew was also grilled on the prevalence of dangerous TikTok challenges targeting kids and teenagers, users being flooded with messages about death and suicide, and algorithmic practices designed to keep users hooked on the app.

In a press conference Wednesday, surrounded by TikTok video creators, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) said that the app is being used as a scapegoat to create fear around China and that banning the social media platform plays into heightened xenophobia and racism. He said that instead of banning TikTok, he wants to pass legislation that would make TikTok and other social media platforms safer and ensure data privacy and security.

TikTok is beloved by many content creators and business owners for elevating their brands and building their livelihoods.

Content creator Baedri Nichole told TYT that if the app were to be banned she would be “starting at ground zero”, pointing out that she and others have not experienced the same level of success with other social media platforms. “It gives us a fighting chance.”

Earlier this month the Biden administration told the Chinese owners of TikTok that it would face being banned if they didn’t sell their shares to a U.S. company.

“I do not think ownership is the issue here,” Chew said during questioning. “With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica — just one example.”

TYT Washington Correspondent Candice Cole was previously a correspondent and senior White House producer for the Black News Channel and has worked at a number of local news outlets. You can find her on Twitter @CandiceColeNews.