Congress Grills TikTok CEO On Privacy, Content Moderation

Lawmakers with the House Energy and Commerce Committee spent the better part of Thursday criticizing TikTok CEO Shou Chew over policies regarding online privacy and potentially harmful content.

“Americans' data is not safe, and Big Tech is doing nothing to protect it,” Rep. Greg Pence (R-Indiana) told Chew.

Rep. Russ Fulcer (R-Idaho) called the company, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, a data-gathering “masterpiece.”

Another elected official asked Chew whether TikTok draws on users' cameras to detect whether their pupils are dilated, in order to harness data about users' preferences. (Chew said the company only captures data about people's eyes to facilitate special effects.)

Yet others questioned Chew about a variety of privacy reports, including one saying that TikTok logs keystrokes of iPhone owners who visit outside websites through TikTok's in-app browser.

Chew defended the company throughout the day by saying its data practices were comparable to those of other tech platforms.

“I don't think American companies have a good track record with respect to privacy," Chew told one lawmaker, citing to Facebook's Cambridge Analytica debacle.

The TikTok CEOalso faced questions about potentially harmful content, such as the “NyQuil challenge,” which involved videos showing chicken being cooked in NyQuil. (Buzzfeed reported last year that the challenge didn't take off until after the Food and Drug Administration warned against cooking chicken in medicine.)

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Florida) showed Chew a video that she characterized as a death threat against committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Florida). The clip, posted last month, appeared to show a gun firing, a reference to the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, and a hashtag next to Rodgers' name.

“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data privacy and security of 150 million Americans, when you can’t even protect the people in this room?” she said. “You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or of the 150 million users of your app, because it is an extension of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”

Soon after Cammack's comments, the video was taken down.

Rep. Annie Craig (D-Minnesota) told Chew that teens used TikTok to find illegal drugs.

“Our kids are at risk from your platform,” she said.

Chew repeated throughout the day that the company has policies banning illegal material, and that concerns about content and privacy have also been raised about other social media platforms.

Craig said one difference between TikTok and U.S.-owned social media platforms is that American companies, at least publicly traded ones, provide information about board members and executive compensation. That type of publicly available data makes those companies more accountable, she suggested.

Rodgers kicked off the hearing by endorsing a ban on the social-media app.

“From the data it collects to the content it controls, TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life,” she said.

“It's been said it is like allowing the Soviet Union the power to produce Saturday morning cartoons during the Cold War but much more powerful and much more dangerous.

“Banning your platform will address the immediate threats."

Immediately after the hearing, Sens Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and John Thune (R-South Dakota), stated that Chew failed to quell concerns about the app.

“Under PRC [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 stated. “Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns.”

Warner and Thune recently introduced legislation that could pave the way for a ban on TikTok.

On the other hand, civil rights advocates, content creators and others oppose a ban.

“If passed by Congress and enacted into law, a nationwide ban on TikTok would have serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere, infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights and setting a potent and worrying precedent in a time of increased censorship of internet users around the world,” groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, PEN America and Fight for the Future said Wednesday in a letter to lawmakers.

“People in the U.S. have a constitutional right to speak via the internet, and to do so on the platform of their choosing,” the groups add. “For citizens, and particularly the tens of millions of young Americans who use TikTok, to witness a popular social media platform summarily shut down by the government will raise serious questions in the minds of a rising generation about the sanctity of free speech in our system of governance.”

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