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Business News/ Technology / News/  TikTok CEO Seeks to Convince Congress Chinese-Owned App Isn’t Security Threat

TikTok CEO Seeks to Convince Congress Chinese-Owned App Isn’t Security Threat


A stumble by Shou Zi Chew ‘will increase calls for a ban,’ Sen. Marco Rubio says


TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew testifies Thursday morning at a high-stakes congressional hearing, as safety and security concerns over the Chinese-controlled platform deepen even as its popularity in the U.S. grows.

Mr. Chew, a Harvard-educated Singaporean army reservist and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose members have already signaled concerns that Beijing could influence TikTok content and harvest user data.

In his prepared testimony, Mr. Chew pledged to firewall U.S. user data from foreign access and shield the platform from government interference. He also said the platform would work to ensure a safe environment for young people, another concern of committee members.

Despite those promises, many in Congress are skeptical that TikTok can ever be beyond the reach of the Chinese government as long as it is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. The Biden administration recently demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban.

That makes Thursday’s appearance something of a gamble for Mr. Chew. The company is hoping he can persuade lawmakers that the company’s $1.5 billion plan to secure user data makes a forced sale unnecessary. But the hearing could also serve as a platform to amplify concerns about the app’s security, adding to pressure to block access to the app in the U.S.

“The evidence against TikTok’s Chinese-controlled parent company, ByteDance, is overwhelming, which makes this a high-risk hearing for the company and its defenders," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a leading critic of the company. Any stumble, he added, “will increase calls for a ban."

Mr. Chew has said he doesn’t consider Thursday’s hearing a do-or-die moment. But he risks accelerating TikTok’s banishment from the U.S. with a poor performance, said Bill Plummer, who ran government and public relations for Huawei Technologies Co.’s Washington office from 2010 to 2018.

Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications-equipment company, ultimately failed to persuade U.S. leaders from effectively banning it from major U.S. business.

Since some Biden administration officials and Congress members have already dismissed Mr. Chew’s plan to silo off TikTok’s U.S. operations from China, his best strategy is expressing openness to divesting some of TikTok’s Chinese ownership, Mr. Plummer said.

“It doesn’t matter if that’s the best thing to do," Mr. Plummer said. “What matters is what the government wants."

Several bills are under consideration in Congress that would ban TikTok outright, typically by banning U.S. companies from doing business with it. Some would also allow the government to ban or restrict other apps with ties to hostile foreign governments.

Mr. Chew likely will also spend time on Thursday responding to lawmakers’ concerns about exploitation of children through the platform. Many lawmakers also are unhappy that TikTok’s parent company serves very different content to children within China.

In his prepared testimony, Mr. Chew said that the platform has taken a number of proactive steps to better protect children—including measures that go beyond those employed by other platforms. For example, accounts registered to teens under 16 are set to private by default, and they also can’t send direct messages. Their content is ineligible for recommendation.

Democrats have generally been more supportive of TikTok than Republicans, calling a ban overly broad. A handful of congressional supporters led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) rallied on the Capitol steps Wednesday evening to show their support for TikTok and its creator community.

An actual ban on TikTok faces an array of practical and legal hurdles, and two federal judges struck down former President Donald Trump’s earlier attempts to do so. Any new attempt would likely hurt Democrats more than Republicans, as TikTok’s dominant audience is composed of younger people who are more likely to vote Democratic.

That said, the app’s wild popularity—the platform now claims to have 150 million monthly users—adds to the political risks of any crackdown.

“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok," Mr. Chew said in a TikTok video this week. “Now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you."

On Wednesday morning, TikTok helped organize a news conference at the Capitol featuring dozens of TikTok personalities, who made their own case that banning the app would suppress Americans’ speech. The company has also recently expanded its lobbying and public-relations efforts and run ads at Washington subway stops and elsewhere touting the company’s commitment to user safety.

Mr. Chew has also been meeting with members of the House committee, including Rep. Buddy Carter (R., Ga.). The meeting “did not alleviate the congressman’s concerns" about TikTok’s impacts on national security as well as mental health, a spokesman said, adding, “He plans to address all these issues during the Thursday hearing."

Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Mich.) even refused a meeting with Mr. Chew ahead of the hearing, a senior aide said.

Some Democrats appear more open-minded, but still skeptical.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.), a senior member of the House panel, said she wants to hear Mr. Chew address concerns about the impact of TikTok’s recommendation algorithm as well as explain why the company has occasionally stumbled in its handling of American users’ data.

Ms. Clarke didn’t say she supported a ban, but she also didn’t rule it out. “I’m open to whatever it takes to protect the American people, their data, [and] our national security. " she said.

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