TikTok’s CEO will tell US Congress his app is safer than most

A supporter holds up a sign that read 'Keep TikTok' during a news conference on TikTok in front of the US Capitol on March 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. — AFP

TikTok chief executive officer Shou Chew plans to tell Congress his app does more to protect young users than rival social media and that Beijing has no authority over its data, invoking familiar arguments to head off a US ban or forced sale.

The app owned by Chinese Internet leader ByteDance Ltd expends a lot of effort protecting its mostly youthful contingent, Chew plans to say when he testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday, according to prepared comments reviewed by Bloomberg News. And the executive, who took the helm of the viral video phenom just two years ago, reiterated that it would never share information demanded by the Communist Party, which has no sway over ByteDance’s US- and Singapore-based subsidiary.

Chew’s comments are meant to head off a barrage of questions expected from Representatives on the committee about teen safety and the impact on mental health of the endless, personalised feed of videos the app serves up. That’s not the only contentious topic Chew expects to address. During his first testimony before Congress, Chew will also be queried on data protection policies and whether the app’s ownership by a Chinese tech company poses a national security risk.

"TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, but has evolved into a global enterprise since its founding,” Chew will say during opening remarks. "Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it.”

TikTok is fighting to convince lawmakers that the company should be allowed to continue operating in the US. The company has been told by President Joe Biden’s administration that it needs to separate from its parent, ByteDance, or face a potential ban. Meanwhile, four bills have been proposed in Congress that would limit the app in the US.

Chief among lawmakers’ concerns, apart from privacy, is a years-old law that compels Chinese companies to share information with government agencies if it’s deemed in the interests of national security. But Chew is expected to reject that perspective because TikTok isn’t available in China and is headquartered abroad.

"Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he’s expected to declare.

The CEO also plans to outline TikTok’s US$1.5bil (RM6.64bil) plan to protect American users by housing US data in domestic servers owned by Oracle Corp, allow auditing of TikTok’s recommendation algorithm and installing an independent three-person board for its sensitive US operations. Those measures go farther to protect user information than its competitors, the company has said.

They include blocking under-16 users from sending direct messages and imposing automatic one-hour scrolling limits for those below the age of 18 - a policy the company instituted just this month.

"We spend a lot of time adopting measures to protect teenagers,” Chew will say during his remarks. "Many of those measures are firsts for the social media industry.”

Those are familiar points that the company has made in the past, both publicly and in private meetings with lawmakers. The difference is they’re being delivered publicly by TikTok’s CEO himself, with a noticeably definitive tone.

Chew on Tuesday took to TikTok to rally the platform’s faithful to its defence. He asked users to leave comments on his post listing all the reasons they love the app, and what they would tell US elected representatives. The post has received more than 65,000 comments, the vast majority supporting the service.

It’s unclear how successful Chew will be in winning over the lawmakers in the room and the critics who will be listening. The Biden administration has already rejected the security plan, Bloomberg has reported. That decision comes as tension between the US and China continues to escalate.

"We have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem,” Chew plans to say.

"And our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialise those concerns - it’s been to address them with real action. The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel.” – Bloomberg

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