WASHINGTON—House lawmakers pummeled TikTok’s chief executive over the popular app’s ties to China, just hours after Beijing said it would fight any U.S. attempt to force the company’s sale by its Chinese owners.
The hearing Thursday, peppered with withering attacks on TikTok from both Democrats and Republicans, ran more than five hours and underscored growing concerns about Beijing’s potential influence over the app. It pushed TikTok to the forefront of U.S.-China relations, which already are frayed over trade, Taiwan, technology and geopolitical rivalries.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee chair, Rep.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers
(R., Wash.), opened the hearing by asking TikTok CEO
Shou Zi Chew
to state “with 100% certainty” that the Chinese government couldn’t use TikTok or its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance Ltd., to surveil Americans or manipulate the content Americans see. Mr. Chew said the company is committed to firewalling U.S. user data from “all unwanted foreign access” and would keep content “free from any manipulation from any government.”
“If you can’t say it 100% certain, I take that as a ‘no,’” Mrs. Rodgers shot back.
of New Jersey, the panel’s top Democrat, said he wasn’t convinced that TikTok’s security plans would work.
“I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” he said, pushing back on what he said was TikTok’s attempt to portray itself as “a benign company that’s just performing a public service…I don’t buy it.”
The frequently hostile questions from lawmakers underscored the fraught relations between the U.S. and China.
“The TikTok battles are indicative of the end of an era,” said
a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, and a former White House adviser.
“This era where U.S.-China business relations can continue absent considerations of geopolitics is over,” she said. “Today that struggle for geopolitical power is playing out over technology infrastructure, including TikTok.”
In his testimony, Mr. Chew also said the platform would work to ensure a safe environment for young people, another concern of committee members.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action,” Mr. Chew told lawmakers in a packed hearing room. “We have to earn your trust.”
Rep. Lori Trahan (D., Mass.) said near the end of Thursday’s hearing that Mr. Chew had fallen short of gaining lawmakers’ trust. “To me it hasn’t happened so far,” she said.
Under questioning, Mr. Chew appeared to confirm that ByteDance employees in China currently have access to personal data on Americans.
“We rely on global interoperability, and we have employees in China, so yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data,” Mr. Chew said. “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore in the past. And access of this is on an as-required basis by engineers globally for business purposes.”
Despite those promises, many in Congress are skeptical that TikTok can ever be beyond the reach of the Chinese government as long as it is owned by ByteDance. The Biden administration recently demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban.
Hours before the hearing, China said it would oppose any forced sale of TikTok, with its Commerce Ministry saying that any sale would involve the export of Chinese technology and must be approved by the Chinese government.
Mrs. Rodgers seized on the Chinese government’s statement as evidence that TikTok could never escape its influence.
“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] believes they have the final say over your company,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “I have zero confidence in your assertion that ByteDance and TikTok are not beholden to the CCP.”
The Chinese government’s statement hurt Mr. Chew’s testimony, said
who used to run government-relations efforts for the Washington office of Chinese tech company Huawei Technologies Co.
“That’s just going to harden perceptions that TikTok can’t act independently,” said Mr. Plummer, whose former company ended up being effectively banned from major U.S. business.
TikTok was hoping Mr. Chew could persuade lawmakers that the company’s $1.5 billion plan to secure user data makes a forced sale unnecessary. But the hearing only magnified concerns about the app’s security, adding to pressure to block access to the app in the U.S.
(R., Ohio) said TikTok had been insulated from legal claims arising from the death of a 10-year-old girl who had participated in a breath-holding challenge that was popular on TikTok. Mr. Latta questioned why TikTok should be protected by federal law shielding websites when it amplifies “dangerous and life-threatening content to children.”
(D., Colo.) asked how TikTok could allow misinformation about home health remedies to proliferate on its site.
(R., Fla.) showed a TikTok video depicting a handgun firing, with a caption that alluded to Thursday’s hearing as well as Mrs. Rodgers.
Noting that the video had been online for 41 days, she said: “You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans, where you can’t even protect the people in this room?”
Mr. Chew wasn’t allowed to respond because Ms. Cammack’s time had expired.
Many Democrats also were critical.
“A lot of your evasiveness today in answering many of these questions really disturbs me,” said Rep.
Mr. Chew generally maintained his balance in the face of hostile questions, but was often cut off by members and occasionally grew frustrated.
“Congressman, you have given me no time to answer your questions,” he said in response to Rep.
(R., Fla.). “I reject your characterizations.”
One lawmaker also questioned why some TikTok executives have appeared reluctant to criticize China over its treatment of the Uyghur minority. “You have repeatedly used the word transparency,” Rep. Gary Palmer (R., Ala.) said. “And every time you’ve said it, what I’ve heard is deception.”
At the same time, several lawmakers expressed concern that TikTok could distract from the need to regulate other big-tech companies.
Several bills are under consideration in Congress that would ban TikTok outright, typically by prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with it. Some would also allow the government to ban or restrict other apps with ties to hostile foreign governments.
Political wrangling could delay passage. So far, TikTok officials are hoping that the difficulties of banning the app or forcing a sale will eventually lead U.S. officials to accept some version of the company’s plan to improve security and safety while maintaining its current ownership structure.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Chew said he doesn’t think a change in ownership would improve safety and security, pointing to the privacy problems of U.S. tech platforms.
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An actual ban on TikTok faces practical and legal hurdles, and two federal judges struck down former President
earlier attempts to do so. Any new attempt would likely hurt Democrats more than Republicans, as TikTok’s dominant audience is composed of younger people who are more likely to vote Democratic.
That said, the app’s wild popularity—the platform now claims to have 150 million monthly users—adds to the political risks of any crackdown.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” Mr. Chew said in a TikTok video this week. “Now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”
On Wednesday morning, TikTok helped organize a news conference at the Capitol featuring dozens of TikTok personalities, who made their own case that banning the app would suppress Americans’ speech. The company has also recently expanded its lobbying and public-relations efforts and run ads at Washington, D.C., subway stops and elsewhere touting the platform’s commitment to user safety.
—Stu Woo and Georgia Wells contributed to this article.
Write to John D. McKinnon at [email protected] and Ryan Tracy at [email protected]
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