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TikTok CEO testifies before Congress but the app’s future remains uncertain


TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before Congress on Thursday amid growing concerns over the app‘s future in the US. Lawmakers grilled Chew for more than five hours but the concerns largely remained unanswered. The TikTok executive repeated statements from his written testimony saying that the video-based social media platform or its Chinese parent company ByteDance doesn’t have any backdoors for China’s CCP (Chinese Communist Party) led government, and it did little to satisfy the lawmakers.

TikTok CEO failed to satisfy the US lawmakers at his first Congressional hearing

Calling for a nationwide ban on TikTok, House Energy and Commerce Committee chair and representative Cathy Rodgers said that “ByteDance is beholden to the CCP, and ByteDance and TikTok are one and the same”. She made the remarks in her opening statements during the Congressional hearing yesterday. She suggested that CCP could gain access to the personal data of American TikTok users through ByteDance. In response, TikTok CEO, who stated in his written testimony that “ByteDance is not an agent of China,” pointed to Project Texas.

Project Texas is TikTok’s plan to keep data of US users within the US. It has teamed up with Texas-based software company Oracle to safeguard the data in the latter’s servers. The data would be inaccessible to anyone outside the US. Expected to be completed later this year, TikTok officials say this would do more to protect American users than an outright ban for the app. However, the plan has been in the works for over a year now and nothing has materialized. Unsurprisingly, lawmakers are losing patience and trust in the company.

During the hearing, committee members were all skeptical of TikTok’s plan to address America’s national security concerns. Rodgers branded it a “marketing scheme,” while Representative Frank Pallone said, “Project Texas is simply not acceptable”. Representative Angie Craig also echoed these sentiments saying that the plan “doesn’t pass the smell test”. These disagreements continued throughout the nearly six-hour showdown. Chew also frustrated lawmakers by declining to answer several “rapid-fire” questions with a Yes or No.

When asked whether ByteDance was a Chinese company, he said that it’s a “global” firm with a Chinese founder. Similarly, he refused to directly answer whether ByteDance employees had spied on American journalists, something the company admitted doing a few months back. “I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it,” Chew said. “This is ultimately an internal investigation”. Of course, this statement sparked sharp criticism. TikTok quickly took to Twitter to point out that Chew firmly said “no” when asked if it spied on behalf of the CCP.

Chew pointed to recent updates when asked about teen safety

The TikTok CEO similarly dodged many other complex questions from Congress members, including one about the inner workings of ByteDance and its China-based employees, Engadget reports. He was also pressed with questions about teen safety. He was asked about the platform’s moderation practices and potentially harmful “challenges” that go viral on the platform.

Chew pointed to various changes and updates TikTok has pushed recently. He talked about the dedicated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) feed, screen time limit, and more. The TikTok CEO also mentioned the platform’s newly-added algorithm reset button. Users can make the app forget everything it has learned about them and start afresh, should they feel unsafe with the content they currently see in the algorithmic feed.

However, none of this was enough to address the lawmakers’ national security concerns. Some have called for a sale of TikTok in the US, though Chinese officials have opposed the idea. Chew, meanwhile, said: “We will need to look at this because Project Texas is designed to move forward here in the United States and we are not discussing this”. As things stand, TikTok’s future is uncertain even after the hours-long grilling of its CEO by lawmakers. We’ll have to wait and see what’s next.

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