Capitol Hill Chews Out TikTok CEO Shou Chew

TikTok CEO Shou Chew testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Committee
TikTok CEO Shou Chew testifies before the House Energy & Commerce Committee. (Image credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Shou Chew, CEO of embattled short-form video streaming site TikTok, took a rhetorical beating from both sides of the aisle as the CEO ran the D.C. gauntlet of House Energy & Commerce Committee critics of the China-based company’s social media site.

But TikTok also got some credit from both sides for doing something difficult —uniting the parties on an issue, in this case the dangers of TikTok, as it is currently constituted, to U.S. citizens.  

In her opening statement for a marathon (over five and a half hours) hearing Thursday (March 23) featuring the top TikTok exec, House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) commenced the beating by saying she did not believe the company could ever be trusted given its ties to the Chinese Communist government and should be banned.

And while Chew provided extensive testimony on why that was not the case, Rodgers had alread cut the legs out from under that testimony by saying she exepcted the company would say anything to avoid that outcome.

She pointed out that the Justice Department is currently investigating TikTok parent ByteDance for spying on American journalists' data and movements using TikTok. Shou said he disagreed with the characterization of that as “spying.

Ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) widened his criticism to Big Tech in general.

In his opening statement, Pallone said that Big Tech had tranformed the information superhighway into a “superspreader of harmful content, invasive surveillance practices, and addictive and damaging design features.”

He said his goal was to bring greater transparency to TikTok. Pallone said he recognized the site provided “a new, fun way for people to express their creativity and enjoy the videos of others,” so while he did not call for a ban, he did say he was not sure that upside “outweigh[s] the risks that it poses to Americans in its present form.”

“The combination of TikTok’s Beijing Communist-based ownership and its popularity exacerbates its dangers to our country and to our privacy,” Pallone said.

Among the legislators’ concerns are the sale of illegal drugs via the platform, its hosting of political disinformation, inappropriate sexual content, and more. But the big issue is collection of user information that could be, and many argue is being, shared with the Chinese government.

Shou said bad actors are an industrywide problem, that the company does protect user privacy via a "firewall" it is creating between U.S. data and China — TikTok has pledged to allow third-party monitors of its data “firewall,” a point Chew made at the hearing — and that drug-related information, political misinformation and inappropriate sexual content violates TikTok’s terms of service and is taken off when found.

The response from legislators was that they aren't doing a sufficient job of finding and eliminating it if that is the case.

Both Rodgers and Pallone said TikTok’s firewall project is insufficient protection and that, more broadly, privacy protection legislation is generally needed for Big Tech players.

As if to put an exclamation point on the bipartisan pushback on TikTok, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), issued a joint statement following the marathon hearing.

“Under [People’s Republic of China] law, all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so,“ the senators said. “Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns.” ■

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.