Tiktok Questioned by Congress, Confirms American Suspicions

Alan Cai

March 24, 2023

Tiktok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew was questioned on Thursday by the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Through the grueling five hour long questioning session, numerous topics were covered and a handful of highlights emerged.

While explaining Chinese government involvement in Tiktok parent company Bytedance, Mr. Chew claimed that Bytedance was owned 60% by global investors, 20% by the founder, and 20% by global employees. The inclusion of the term “global investors” seems rather ambiguous as Chew failed to address the portion of those investors who have ties with the Chinese Communist Party. The usage of the term “founder” additionally draws attention to another eerie issue present within the company structure. Following China’s technology crackdown, founder Zhang Yiming, also the second richest person in China, stepped down from the post of CEO at age 39 and is reportedly spending vast amounts of time away from the company’s Beijing’s headquarters.

Bytedance is not publicly traded and provides a wide variety of technology services including social media platform Tiktok, Chinese counterpart Douyin, news and blog site Toutiao, video editing software CapCut, and other services. Tiktok alone has more than one billion monthly users around the globe.

Bytedance itself has a spotted history of submission to Beijing’s wishes. In 2018, the National Radio and Television Administration of China, under the Central Propaganda Department, shut down Bytedance’s joke-sharing platform, Neihan Duanzi. Then-CEO Zhang apologized by stating, “Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values.” He subsequently promised full compliance with the Chinese Communist Party. In Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Chew failed to assure Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers that Tiktok does not allow foreign actors to access Tiktok data servers. Under oath, the executive also implied that the Chinese government does not censor content from the site.

With regards to connection with parent company Bytedance, Representative Burgess of Texas asked whether Mr. Chew received any preparation for the hearing from officials from the Communist Party or from Bytedance. Mr. Chew gave an indefinite answer explaining that he did not know the political affiliations of the people he spoke with. Congressman Latta of Ohio additionally pointed out a 2017 Chinese law that mandated companies in China to be completely compliant with Chinese regulations and mandates. Mr. Chew affirmed that Bytedance is subject to the law’s jurisdiction but reiterated Tiktok’s so-called “Project Texas” which aims at storing all data collected in the United States on American servers.

Content responsibility on Tiktok was also touched on by numerous representatives including Representative DeGette of Colorado. The issues of the “blackout challenge,” colloquially known as the “choke challenge” were issues of contention. DeGette added that Tiktok’s algorithm tends to recommend false information such as those pertaining to health and can lead to real-life devastating consequences.

Bipartisan support against Tiktok has gained massive traction both within and outside of the congressional committee. Assuming the inadequacy of lobbying, it is likely that the legislative chamber is poised to pass sweeping legislation against the $300 billion social media giant.