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TikTok boss faces five hour grilling in US Congress

By | Published on Friday 24 March 2023


Someone should tell American lawmakers that if they want kids in America to share their concerns about all those shady and no doubt sinister Chinese government officials monitoring their every move via the TikTok app, they need to say so in 40 seconds while dancing to the hook of a buzzy pop hit.

Sitting down in Congress and moaning on about it for five hours straight isn’t going to cut it I’m afraid. Even if you do have the boss of TikTok on the other side of the table, desperately trying his best to stick to a pre-rehearsed list of statements that are all basically different ways of saying “we’re not that evil, honest guvnor”. Or, perhaps, more realistically, “we’re definitely no more evil than Google and Meta”.

But still, for those following the political story around TikTok, the stern questioning of the digital firm’s previously low profile CEO Shou Zi Chew yesterday was something of a big event. Given the pressure that has been building on the social media app in multiple countries over the relationship between its China-based owner Bytedance and the Chinese government.

And the pressing need to do something about evil TikTok and all of its evil shenanigans is something that actually unites politicians across the super-divided and partisan American Congress of 2023. Even if that means Democrats are essentially agreeing with one of Donald Trump’s policies from back during his presidency, specifically his failed TikTok ban.

There were few surprises during Chew’s lengthy grilling by members of the House Committee On Energy And Commerce. We knew that Chew would insist that the Chinese government does not have access to TikTok user-data; and that TikTok is in fact a global company with much of its operations outside of China.

And that TikTok takes data security very seriously indeed; that it’s already working on a big old project in America to address all the concerns of Congress and other American political types; and that extra measures are already in place to protect young people using the app. So, actually, all those TikTok-addicted kids in America are just fine.

And we knew Chew would also stress just how popular TikTok is within the USA, how many people use it everyday, how many creators and businesses rely on it as a monetisation and marketing platform, and therefore how catastrophic it would be if President Joe Biden, empowered by new laws in Congress, was to ban use of the app within the country.

Of course, TikTok’s critics argue, a compromise would be for Bytedance to sell TikTok, maybe via an initial public offering on an American stock exchange. But no need, according to Chew, because all the concerns raised by his company’s critics are already being dealt with.

We also knew that the committee members would be forthright in expressing their various concerns while questioning Chew about what access Bytedance staff in China currently have to US user-data; and about the day-to-day relationship between TikTok and its owner, and its owner and the Chinese government.

And also whether that big data security project in America – dubbed Project Texas – will really solve the problems, and if so, how soon; and whether Chew and his team are really doing enough to protect those all-important kids in America.

Chew conceded that Bytedance staff in China do indeed have access to TikTok data from around the world, for now at least, because “we rely on global interoperability”. But nothing dodgy is going on with the data they can access, he insisted.

Asked if he personally had shares in Bytedance, Chew reluctantly admitted that he did. But, he was keen to stress, TikTok nevertheless operates quite autonomously from its owner, despite Chew himself having moved over from a senior role at Bytedance into his current TikTok job.

And when questioned about whether or not he lets his own kids use TikTok, Chew said no, but only because in Singapore – where they live – the kid-friendly version of the app isn’t currently available. That version is available in the US, so – you know – kids in America are still doing fine.

Although not part of the official script, Chew did mention that plenty of data issues have been raised with American digital platforms, so it’s not like only foreign social media apps have caused concern.

Though one Committee member, while acknowledging that is true, observed that his colleagues in Congress weren’t particularly impressed when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg addressed those issues in Washington in 2018, and they were unlikely to be any more impressed by Chew’s arguments yesterday.

So, everyone said what we expected them to say; it just took them five hours to do it. What now? More political and media organisations are likely to restrict use of TikTok on their networks and official devices – the UK Parliament did so yesterday.

Meanwhile, unless Biden is actually willing and able to instigate a full-on TikTok ban which, unlike Trump’s, doesn’t get caught up in legal wrangling, all those kids in America will keep on TikTokking. What fun!

Hey kids in America. Speaking as a former member of the Kim Wilde fan club, here’s a suggestion for you: some sort of TikTok fad using a sneaky clip of ‘Kids In America’?

And then we could get the Chinese government’s data spies to pick the best one, on the promise they’ll delete all the personal TikTok data they’ve gathered about the winner. Which is no data at all, I’m sure Chew would want you all to know. Yeah, maybe.