Live blog: Lawmakers say TikTok 'beholden' to Beijing as CEO Shou Chew testifies before Congress
TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday in an explosive showdown between the social media executive and lawmakers seeking to ban the app in the U.S.
The hearing largely focused on whether TikTok's Beijing-based parent company ByteDance can ship U.S. users' data to China's government which could then use it to spy on Americans. Lawmakers, however, also demanded answers regarding the app's addictive nature and the kind of content it serves up to its teen users. Specifically, members questioned TikTok's efforts to limit the spread of topics including those promoting suicide, eating disorders, and other dangerous activities.
TikTok, which has 1 billion users globally, is massively popular in the U.S., where it has 150 million monthly active users, many of them teens.
But as TikTok has grown, so have lawmakers' concerns. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), meanwhile, has been in negotiations with ByteDance for the company to sell TikTok to an American entity. Those negotiations, however, have seemingly stalled.
This post was regularly updated with key details of the event. All times EDT.
That's the end of today's hearing. Where we go from here is still up in the air. Congress is still moving forward with attempts to ban TikTok, which the company will no doubt fight. For now, however, we're adjourned.
“Is ByteDance part of the corporate group?” Crenshaw asked.
“ByteDance as a holding company is part of the corporate group, yes,” Chew said.
“My point is that you might have to [share TikTok’s company data with the CCP],” Crenshaw said. “And I want to say this to all teenagers out there, and TikTok influencers who think we are just old and out of touch and don’t know what we’re talking about, trying to take away your favorite app: You may not care that your data’s being accessed now, but it will be one day when you do care about it. And here’s the real problem: with data comes power."
Crenshaw: “The long term goal of the CCP is the demise of the American power – and that starts with our youth....You want to know why democrats and republicans have come together on this? That's why we're so concerned."
Rep. Daniel Crenshaw (R-TX) is again asking about ByteDance's connection to the Chinese government.
Crenshaw: “Do you agree that TikTok is controlled by the CCP?
Rep. Armstrong is now asking questions again, challenging Chew about whether he things users know how much data TikTok collects about them. Chew says he doesn't believe the company collects anyone more data than competing services.
Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) is asking about whether Chew has shares in ByteDance and TikTok.
Griffith told Chew that ByteDance's shared legal counsel with TikTok fails U.S. standards for blocking the exchange of information.
“There is no firewall, legally,” Griffith said.
Miller-Meeks passes the remainder of her time to Obernolte, who asks Chew about who will have access to U.S. user data when Project Texas is completed.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) follows on with security questions, asking if TikTok can track users' keystrokes. Chew says the company can only do so when trying to determine if someone is a bot or not, similar to other companies.
Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX) is asking Chew about whether he is away of any Chinese propaganda on TikTok. Chew says that anything that would be posted along those lines would be labeled as such.
We're back onto where data from TikTok travels, and if it's available in other countries.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA): "Does the Chinese government need to approve Project Texas for TikTok to agree to it?
Chew: “We do not believe so.”
We're now looking at the issue of drugs on TikTok, with Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) saying that TikTok has taken little action in response to the issue.
Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-ID) begins by discussing TikTok's addictiveness.
"I've got to compliment you on having a product that's impressive... It's a data-gathering masterpiece," he said.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA) is focusing in on the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19.
The committee is back in session and Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) is questioning Chew about reports that TikTok is used as a propaganda tool.
The committee has gone into a short recess. We'll be back as soon as they return.
Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D-TX) says that teens prefer TikTok. She also brings up the company's internal messaging tool and whether it can identify employees' managers. She then asks if it can do the same for Chew and whether he uses the app, Lark, to communicate with employees at ByteDance.
Rep. Troy Balderson (R-OH) says that TikTok's algorithm continues to spread dangerous content on the platform. Chew, however, counters that the company takes down content that runs counter to its user guidelines.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) digs into product safety and restrictions on TikTok for teen users, and points to the fact that savvy children can defeat age gates on the platform.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) says that Chew has "tied himself in knots" not to criticize the Chinese government during the hearing. Armstrong also asks whether TikTok should have to pay for CFIUS's oversight of the social media platform.
Chew: “We don’t know the political affiliation of our employees.
Rep. John Joyce (R-PA) asks when data that was stored on TikTok's backups will be deleted and all data is on Oracle's servers. Chew says that it will be finished sometime this year.
Rep. Kim Schrier (D-WA) dives into TikTok's addictiveness and its impact on teens' mental health. Chew says that they have implemented a 60-minute limit for teens by default. But Schrier says they can easily bypassed those limits, and presses Chew about how many of those teen users jump past the 60-minute limit.
Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL) brings up the spread of adult and dangerous congress on TikTok, saying that Congress needs to pass legislation dealing with the problem on the platform as well as its rivals including Facebook and Twitter.
Soto: "TikTok needs to be an American company with American values."
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) asks Chew whether he agrees that the Chinese government is persecuting Uighur Muslims, something the U.S. has repeatedly called out as human rights abuse and a genocide.
Chew instead says that he is there to discuss TikTok and that people are allowed to express themselves however they like on the platform.
Lesko also asks about a recent Forbes article regarding TikTok employees accessing U.S. journalists' user data.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) questions TikTok about how much misinformation related to abortion has taken down, but Chew says he needs to look into that.
Blunt Rochester also asks how the $1.5 billion TikTok is using to improve privacy and security via Project Texas is being spent. She ends by saying that the committee was looking to hear concrete action from TikTok that it can be trusted.
Rep John Curtis (R-UT) is focusing in on Section 230 and how it protects TikTok.
Curtis asks about whether certain social media apps are acting as publishers and distributors, and whether they are able to influence users. He further asks if TikTok has ever stepped over the line from distributor to publisher.
Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL) says that TikTok will grow into a cancer, and equates the social network to the spread of fentanyl made in China and shipped to the U.S.
Dunn also questions reports that Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone maker where Chew served as CFO, blocked information related to democracy in Europe. Those accusations were originally raise by Lithuania's Defense Ministry, but Germany's own cybersecurity watchdog said that it couldn't find any evidence of censorship functions on Xiaomi's phones.
Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX) says that teenagers of today don't want to be on Facebook, they want to be on TikTok. But adds that the Chinese Communist Party is using TikTok to spread disinformation.
Veasey also touches on disinformation spread through advertisements on TikTok, specifically election disinformation including voter suppression.
Chew says that TikTok is the only platform that doesn't take money from political advertising, and that its competitors can't say the same.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) focuses in on whether TikTok previously collected precise GPS information on U.S. users. Chew says that the company previously did that, but no longer does so.
Chew: "We don't sell data to data brokers, if that's the question."
Chew also commits to not sell user data to data brokers, and says that they do not do it now.
Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA) gets to technical questions about how large the database TikTok is offering to Oracle is and what TikTok code specifically Oracle will be reviewing as part of Project Texas. Project Texas is TikTok's effort to alleviate Congress's fears of China having access to American user data by moving it to Oracle's servers.
Obernolte is the first representative to ask specific tech questions about Project Texas, and questions how TikTok is working to protect against nefarious actors potentially inputting malicious code into TikTok's database.
Obernolte, a former video game software engineer said: “I don’t believe it is technologically possible to accomplish what TikTok says it will accomplish using project Texas.”
We're back from the break and Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) is asking about the previous tweet threatening the committee and why it was taken down so fast when it was brought to Chew's attention, but only then.
Chew says it speaks to the trouble of moderating such large platforms, but that the company is working to do so.
Cardenas also presses Chew as to whether TikTok's parent ByteDance is a Chinese company, but Chew says its a global firm.
The committee has gone into recess for 10 minutes. We'll be back with more coverage.
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) tells Chew that he believes the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in "psychological warfare" against American children via TikTok.
He then asks whether TikTok's Chinese sister app Douyin has similar viral challenges in China, like the blackout challenge, which dares people to see how long they can hold their breath and has resulted in several deaths.
Chew says that these problems are an industry challenge that need to be addressed, but Carter doesn't allow him to finish.
Asked how TikTok can verify the age of minors who use its platform, Chew said, “We rely on age-gating, which is when you ask the user what age they are." In combination, Chew said, "If you post a public video…we look at those to see if it matches the age you posted."
Rep. Yvette Clark (D-NY) points out that problems like discrimination and bias aren't a TikTok-specific problem, and that they are something that other platforms have to and should deal with.
Chew says that the platform should be transparent and that people should be able to express themselves, as long as it doesn't go against the app's usage rules.
Clark says that she is concerned with transparency and algorithmic accountability, and says that is part and parcel about what Congress is worried about when it comes to social media platforms.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) returns to the topic of TikTok selling itself and whether ByteDance employees in Beijing have access to American user data.
Chew says that TikTok is a private business and that the Chinese Communist Party doesn't have access to user data.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) focuses in on the spread of harmful and distressing content related to eating disorders, mental health issues, and addiction.
Chew: "I would need to follow up with my team."
Chew followed up by saying that users who type in searches related to eating disorders, suicide, or miscarriages are directed to a 'safety page.'
I tried out searching some of these terms on TikTok and here's what kicked back. Queries for "suicide" and "eating disorders" kicked back the safety page, while miscarriages didn't. — Allie Garfinkle
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) follows the same line of questioning regarding teens as well as drug-related content. He then asks why that content can be blocked in China but not in the U.S.
Guthrie also asks if flagged user content on competing platforms is blocked on TikTok or if the company works with its competitors to stop such content from spreading.
Chew, however, says that TikTok should be compared to its U.S. competitors, not Douyin, which is a China-only app.
Rep John Sarbanes (D-MA) is focusing on how teens use the app, and points out that they are able to bypass the kinds of protections that TikTok puts in place to protect younger users. This has been a point that other representatives have been bringing up as well.
Sarbanes: "Let's face it, our teens…they know how to use the technology and get around these limits. if they want to. Are you measuring how many teens continue to exceed the 60 minute time limit on that app?
Chew: “We understand those concerns…That's why we give the parents, what we call family pass.”
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) points to a Citizen Lab report that indicates that portions of TikTok's source code is the same as the China-based Douyin app, and that some of the capabilities to censor content is included in that code.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) asks Chew about advertising to children between the ages of 13 and 17, but Chew says he needs to check with his teams to understand TikTok's exact policies.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) discusses children who follow dangerous content, specifically the story of a young man who committed suicide. Showing a video promoting suicide that allegedly contributed to the suicide of a 16 year old New York teenager, Bilirakis asked Chew: “Would you share this content with your children with your two children?”
Bilirakis says this is why Congress needs to implement a comprehensive data privacy and security law.
Bilirakis also brought up the Blackout Challenge again. I reiterate the point – this problem doesn't go away if TikTok goes away. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat just last year were sued in at least one similar case. — Allie Garfinkle
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) asks Chew if TikTok would support a transparency bill in the U.S. related to how social media companies' algorithms function.
Chew says he agrees that such legislation is appropriate.
Matsui also questions Chew about whether TikTok has any internal policies about content including extreme fitness, depression, etc. He says that the company is working on this, especially when it comes to younger users.
Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) questions Chew about an internal TikTok memo saying that the company needs to downplay it's China connection. She then plays a TikTok of an animated gun firing referencing today's hearing.
Cammack: "This video has been up for 41 days. It is a direct threat to the chairwoman of this committee, the people in this room — and yet it still remains on the platform and you expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans..."
Chew asks if he can respond after Cammack runs over her time, but McMorris Rodgers doesn't allow him to.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) says that he has serious concerns about TikTok's ability to give the Chinese Communist party access to the data of U.S. military members. He also says that there should be a ban on military personnel using the app on their personal devices.
Chew's opting not to disclose his salary from ByteDance or assets tied to the company. It seems like TikTok being a private company has really hurt it in this hearing. — Allie Garfinkle
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) questions Chew about safety for teens and the spread of dangerous medical disinformation.
DeGette: "I want to know from you, and I will give you time to answer this. You have current controls, but the current controls are not working to keep this information, mainly from young people but from Americans in general, What more is TikTok doing to strengthen its review to try to keep this information from coming to people?"
Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) asks whether Chew supports Section 230, the U.S.'s internet liability shield. He says that TikTok is a "picture perfect example" about why Congress needs to revamp the law.
Latta is focusing heavily on the Nylah Anderson case. I understand why he is, but social media has been linked to the deaths of children for years, and he's making it sound like a problem specific to TikTok. If TikTok is banned, that problem doesn't go away. — Allie Garfinkle
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) discusses how China's Communist Party has laws in place that require companies to turn over data at its request. And asks how TikTok can convince Congress that there could be a clean break between TikTok and China's national laws.
Chew: "I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data."
Eshoo pointed out that under Chinese law its government’s access to corporate user data is clearly extraterritorial. — Alexis Keenan
“How do you convince the Congress of the United States that there can be a clean break?”
Chew: “Our plan is to move American data to be stored on American soil in America.”
Burgess: "Are attorneys representing TikTok also representing ByteDance?"
Chew: “Yes I believe so.”
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) points to a report by The Wall Street Journal saying that Chinese Party representatives say they wouldn't sign off on a sale of TikTok.
He also asks a series of questions about who helped Chew prepare for today's hearing.
Burgess: "Did anyone at ByteDance help you prepare for this hearing?"
Chew: "I prepared for this meeting with my team here in DC.
Chew says that TikTok doesn't sell data to data brokers or anyone else.
Pallone: "What about a commitment you won't sell the data you collect?" Chew responds saying that TikTok isn't selling its data to data brokers, but doesn't fully commit to not selling data?
Pallone says that he doesn't believe that TikTok's plan to place a firewall between U.S. data and its Chinese servers won't work.
"I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do, and so this idea, this project Texas. is simply not acceptable."
"TikTok has told us that you weren't sharing data with the CCP, but leaked audio from within TikTok is proven otherwise," McMorris Rodgers said. "TikTok told us that you weren't tracking the geolocation of American citizens. You were. TikTok told us you weren't spying on journalists. You were."
Chew's proposed commitments: Safety for teenagers; firewall US data from unwanted foreign access; remain place for free expression; transparent access to 3rd party monitors.
Chew's hitting on lawmakers' concerns about teenagers on TikTok upfront, emphasizing features like Family Pairing, which allows parents to control their children's safety and privacy controls: "We want TikTok to be a place where teenagers come to learn." This was something that McMorris Rodgers hit hard in her opening remarks. — Allie Garfinkle
Chew gives his opening statements, saying that the company is 60% owned by global investors and that 3 of the company's 5 board members are Americans.
Chew says that American data is stored on American soil and overseen by American personnel. Once all backup data that is stored on TikTok's servers are transferred to Oracle's servers, Chew says, all TikTok user data will be based in America.
"We believe we are the only company that offers this level of transparency," Chew said. "There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform and we know we have a responsibility to protect them."
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) gives his opening remarks saying that Congress can't wait any longer to pass comprehensive data privacy legislation. He also says that TikTok is controlled by its Beijing-based communist ByteDance. It's worth pointing out that ByteDance has repeatedly said it is not controlled by China's government.
Pallone also runs through the usual criticisms of social media apps including how drugs can be sold on platforms, users posting hate speech, and that they seek to keep users online as long as possible.
He also calls for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a liability shield to online companies that allow for users to post on their sites.
Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is laying out the rules of the hearing and is giving her opening statement. Says that the American people need to know the truth about TikTok's operations, and that the Chinese Communist Party is able to use U.S. user data against them.
"We do not trust that TikTok will ever embrace American values."
McMorris Rodgers also points to the current DOJ investigation into TikTok employees surveilling American journalists.
"The facts show that ByteDance is beholden to the CCP, and TikTok and ByteDance are one in the same."
Rodgers also talks about how the committee is working on data privacy legislation, and that Chew owes answers to the American people.
We're following along with the hearing live, as members of the Commerce Committee make their way to their seats. Chew is seated and should begin his testimony shortly.
Chew's written testimony
Ahead of Thursday's hearing Chew released his opening statement to the committee highlighting how TikTok works to address the representatives' concerns about data privacy, minors, real-world harms from online content, and the risk of foreign content manipulation.
Chew mentions that TikTok representatives have met with members of the committee in the past, as well as the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. In the statement, Chew says that TikTok's parent company ByteDance isn't an extension of the Chinese government.
"ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country," he said in the statement. "However, for the reasons discussed above, you don’t simply have to take my word on that. Rather, our approach has been to work transparently and cooperatively with the U.S. government and Oracle to design robust solutions to address concerns about TikTok’s heritage."
Expect committee members to come back to and push back on this throughout the hearing.
6 lawmakers to watch during today’s marathon hearing
These are the major political players involved in the hearing, and the laws Congress is pushing to ban the app in the U.S.
One of the only sure bets during today’s hearing is that it will be a long one, with each of the 52 lawmakers on the committee being allotted 5 minutes for questions. In case you don't have all day to sit and watch TV, here are 6 lawmakers in particular to tune in for.
The Leaders: Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ)
The tone of the day will be set with opening statements and then questions from the two leaders of the panel. Rep. McMorris Rodgers is one in particular to watch — She has already endorsed a ban on TikTok, and her aides have said to watch for aggressive questioning.
Silicon Valley’s Congresswoman: Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA)
If you are looking for a conversation between Chew and someone who has spoken with a lot of tech CEOs before, watch out for Rep. Eshoo. She is the second-ranking Democrat and represents a big chunk of Silicon Valley — including Mountain View and Palo Alto — and also co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus all the way back in 1996.
The Trump Loyalist: Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA)
The conservative Republican is Vice Chair of the committee’s Communications and Technology group and told Yahoo Finance in a statement this week he’ll be calling for a ban today and that, “National security and mental health are more important than social media, no matter how popular the app may be.”
The Midwesterner: Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI)
She isn’t likely to get to ask her questions until a couple hours in, but the Michigan congresswoman isn’t afraid to mix it up—as witnessed during the now infamous shouting match on the Capitol Steps. She told Yahoo Finance that she plans to use the hearing as “another step in our effort to develop a national data privacy law and to hold big tech accountable.”
The Techie: Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA)
He won't go until the hearing is almost complete but Rep. Obernolte is another member who should be able to keep up with Mr. Chew. He is a former computer engineer and video game developer, and he has a graduate degree in artificial intelligence. Look for him to lean into some of the technical aspects of TikTok’s platform from how they protect data to how the secretive algorithm works.
Catch up quick: The 4 bills currently on the table to ban TikTok
There are currently four main pieces of legislation on the table that would move the U.S. toward a ban on TikTok. They differ on a few details but are in agreement on the main idea: TikTok needs to go.
Perhaps the most prominent effort is called the RESTRICT Act, and it’s being led by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD). Their approach wouldn’t ban TikTok immediately but would instead give the Biden administration the clear authority to do so.
A similar approach advanced in the House earlier this month sponsored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) that also gives the president new powers to impose a ban after then-President Trump made moves in 2020 to prohibit the app but was blocked by the courts.
A second way of thinking is to ban TikTok immediately. That’s the approach Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Reps Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) have taken in their bill. “TikTok is digital fentanyl,” Gallagher has said while trying to sell the effort. Yet another bill that also aims to place an immediate ban is being led by Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO).
Interestingly, none of the above lawmakers will be sitting across from TikTok's Shou Chew today. But something to watch is whether those who do get time with the CEO align themselves with any approach in particular. For example, Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) has called for a ban but hasn’t yet endorsed any particular approach to get there.
Allie Garfinkle is a Senior Tech Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @agarfinks and on LinkedIn.
Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.
Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.
Daniel Howley is the tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him @DanielHowley