TikTok CEO faces U.S. lawmakers for questioning amid calls for full app ban

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The CEO of TikTok will make a high-profile appearance Thursday before a U.S. congressional committee, where he’ll face a grilling on data security and user safety while he makes his case for why the hugely popular video-sharing app shouldn’t be banned.

Shou Zi Chew’s testimony comes at a crucial time for the company, which has acquired 150 million American users but is under increasing pressure from U.S. officials. TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, have been swept up in a wider geopolitical battle between Beijing and Washington over trade and technology.

Chew, a 40-year-old Singapore native, is making a rare public appearance to counter the volley of accusations that TikTok has been facing. 

Chew plans to tell the U.S. House committee on energy and commerce that TikTok prioritizes the safety of its young users and deny allegations that the app is a national security risk, according to his prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing.

TikTok has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favourable to the country’s Communist leaders.

“We understand the popularity of TikTok, we get that,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “But the president’s job is to make sure again that … national security is protected as well.”

The U.S., Britain, Canada and New Zealand are among the countries that have recently banned use of TikTok on government-issued phones. Norway did so Thursday, while also banning the government use of Telegram, founded by Russian brothers.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year the agency was concerned about “the possibility that the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.”

Calls to ban TikTok have near-total support from Republican lawmakers, as well as widespread support from Democrats.

But Democratic congressman Jamaal Bowman appears opposed to the selective approach.

“Instead of banning TikTok, we need comprehensive legislation to ensure social media users’ data is safe and secure,” said Bowman. “Banning TikTok won’t solve that problem.”

Unclear how a ban would work

A U.S. ban on an app would be unprecedented, and it’s unclear how the government would go about enforcing it.

Several people with signs are shown as a man in a suit speaks outdoors at what appears to be a rally.
New York congressman Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat, is shown speaking at a rally of TikTok supporters on the steps of the Capitol in Washington on March 22, 2023. The House of Representatives is holding a hearing Thursday with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on the platform’s consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on kids. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Experts say officials could try to force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, preventing new users from downloading it as well as preventing existing users from updating it, ultimately rendering it useless.

The U.S. could also block access to TikTok’s infrastructure and data, seize its domain names or force internet service providers to filter TikTok data traffic, said Ahmed Ghappour, a criminal law and computer security expert who teaches at Boston University’s school of law.

But a tech savvy user could still get around restrictions by using a virtual private network (VPN) to make it appear the user is in another country where it’s not blocked, he said.

To avoid a ban, TikTok has been trying to sell officials on a $1.5 billion US plan to route all U.S. user data to domestic servers owned and maintained by software giant Oracle.

As of October, all new U.S. user data was being stored inside the country. The company started deleting all historic U.S. user data from non-Oracle servers this month, in a process expected to be completed later this year, Chew has said.

China’s government said Thursday it would oppose possible U.S. plans to force TikTok to sell the service, another possibility that has been mentioned to allow the service to continue to operate.