May 27, 2024

Lawmakers blasted TikTok’s chief executive over the platform’s ties to China during a roughly five-hour hearing on Thursday, underscoring how the viral video app has become a part of a battle between the U.S. and China for political, technological and economic dominance. The central battlefield of status.

Shou Chew, chief executive of TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, has raised questions about the app’s relationship with its parent company and China’s potential influence on the platform. Republican and Democratic lawmakers repeatedly asked Mr. Zhou whether TikTok was spying on Americans on behalf of the Chinese government, interrupting him and angrily demanding a yes or no answer.

The hearing, a rare display of bipartisan unity, was harsher than previous congressional hearings attended by executives of U.S. social media companies, which were complicated by the involvement of Chinese authorities. Hours before Chew’s testimony, China’s Ministry of Commerce expressed opposition to the sale of TikTok, publicly denouncing the Biden administration, which has demanded that TikTok be spun off and threatened that the U.S. could ban the app.

That puts Mr. Zhou, 40, in a bind as he tries to mold TikTok into an independent company free from Chinese influence. “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said at one point, a response that apparently frustrated lawmakers. “It’s a private company.”

The hearing and China’s statement cemented how TikTok has become a focus of geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. Both President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are campaigning to boost their respective technology sectors, and each has suspended trade with the other country as suspicions between Washington and Beijing mount.

With the U.S. and China at odds over TikTok sales, the app has essentially two paths in the U.S. A Biden administration could ban the app, as it could face a difficult court challenge, or it could reopen stalled negotiations for a technical solution to data security concerns.

But even as the White House considers those options, the striking bipartisan unity at Thursday’s hearing was a boon for President Biden as he takes a tough stance on China. With the exception of his tough stance on China on trade, technology dominance, the war in Ukraine and other issues, nearly every policy he has pursued has drawn strong opposition from Republicans.

Lindsay Gorman, head of technology and geopolitics at the German Marshall Fund and a former technical adviser to the Biden administration, said: “The future of TikTok in the United States today is definitely more bleak and uncertain than yesterday.” Addressing these national security concerns, but now from all sides.”

To continue operating in the U.S. without changing Chinese ownership, TikTok has proposed ways to protect U.S. users through measures such as segregated data. But no security agreement has been reached, and U.S. intelligence officials have warned that the app may be an arm of the Chinese government used to spy on Americans and spread propaganda.

That risk has intensified in recent weeks as the Biden administration has pushed to sell TikTok from its Chinese owners or face a possible ban on U.S. soil. But China’s comments opposing the sale on Thursday narrowed the scope of potential actions by the White House to rein in the app without raising tensions, leading to a bitter row with Mr. Zhou at the hearing.

CEOs of foreign-owned companies rarely testify before Congress, most recently in 2010 when Toyota’s chief executive attended a meeting to discuss the recall of millions of vehicles.

Over the past few years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have increasingly coalesced around growing hostility to Chinese companies in the U.S., an administration ban on exports to Chinese telecommunications companies, and several measures aimed at restricting TikTok and other related companies. Hostile Foreign Government-Related Technology Act.

At the hearing, more than 50 lawmakers expressed deep doubts about Mr. Zhou’s defense. They have painted TikTok as a threat to national security, accusing it of violating people’s privacy, damaging the mental health of teenagers and killing some young people. August Pfluger, a Republican congressman from Texas, told Mr. Zhou that the executive had inspired a political unity not seen in three or four years.

“We don’t believe TikTok embraces American values,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which chaired the hearing. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path of more control, more surveillance, and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said the hearing was “primarily political grandstanding.”

Mr. Zhou has sought to draw a line between TikTok and China, emphasizing that he was born in Singapore and lives there with his Virginia-born wife and two children. He emphasized early on that he had attended business school in the United States.

But he acknowledged that he reports directly to ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo, and that some TikTok employees participate in ByteDance’s stock option incentive plan.

Zhou believes that banning TikTok would be a blow to free speech. The app serves many small businesses and creators, with 150 million users and 7,000 employees in the US.

He also repeatedly pointed to efforts to protect Americans’ data. The company has come up with a plan called Project Texas to store the data of U.S. users on domestic servers run by Texas software giant Oracle. He insisted that the data security plan rejected by the Biden administration would be the best way to protect consumers.

“The bottom line is this: U.S. data is stored on U.S. soil by a U.S. company and overseen by U.S. personnel,” Mr Zhou said.

Lawmakers remain skeptical. Some pointed to China’s statement against the sale of TikTok as evidence of Chinese influence over the company. They cited ByteDance’s reports of spying on U.S. journalists as evidence of the company’s abuses of privacy and user safety. In December, ByteDance said its employees in China had retrieved sensitive data on U.S. TikTok users, including journalists, in an attempt to figure out who had leaked inside information to journalists.

“I don’t believe its benefits outweigh the risks it poses to Americans in its current form,” Frank Pallone, a top-ranking Democrat from New Jersey, said of TikTok. “The combination of TikTok’s Communist Chinese ownership in Beijing and its popularity exacerbates its danger to our country and our privacy.”

Concerns about TikTok have grown during the Trump administration. In 2020, President Donald J. Trump tried unsuccessfully to ban TikTok from Apple and Google’s app stores unless it was sold to a U.S. buyer. A deal to sell stakes in the app to Oracle and Walmart never came together.

After the Biden administration took office, the initial focus was on negotiating a security agreement that would allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States. That changed in recent weeks as the White House asked TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the app. The administration is also backing a new bill sponsored by Senators Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, that would give it more power to ban TikTok.

Zhou, who was named TikTok’s chief executive in May 2021, has launched a charm offensive in Washington in recent months, meeting lawmakers, think-tank leaders and journalists.This week, he tried to pass a paragraph about Tik Tokwarning users that politicians “could take TikTok from 150 million of you.”

TikTok has drawn support from free speech advocates who have warned against banning the app.

“Banning or restricting access to social media is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime, and we should be very careful about giving the U.S. government this power,” Jamil Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a report. statement.

Lawmakers also voiced concerns about TikTok and young Americans at the hearing. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of U.S. teens use the app. TikTok has faced criticism that it is too addictive and that its algorithms can bombard teens with videos, putting them in dangerous or even deadly situations.

Florida Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor said at the hearing: “TikTok was designed to minimize harm to children, but in the end it made the decision to make children addicted in the name of profit.”

Mr Chew said TikTok had worked hard to limit the replay of videos on subjects such as extreme sports, and the app’s guidelines did not allow content promoting self-harm or eating disorders. He also pointed to the new 60-minute screen time limit, which parents can control, for users ages 12 and under, and the prompt that appears after 60 minutes now for users ages 13 to 17.

Lawmakers are not reassured by this. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Delaware, said Mr. Zhou’s testimony heightened concerns about the company’s ties to China, violations of data privacy and how the app treats children.

“I think that really sums up why you’re seeing so much bipartisan consensus and concern about your company,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”

Chang Cheh Contribution report.

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