WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES — TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will fight for the survival of the hugely popular video-sharing app in the United States on Thursday, as he faces sceptical Washington lawmakers over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government.
The 40-year-old Singaporean will address the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) and endure hours of serious grilling by both Republicans and Democrats who fear that Beijing could subvert the site for spying or to promote propaganda.
Tiktok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is under immense pressure across Western countries, with government officials in the United States, at the EU commission, as well as the UK and Canada forced to delete the app from their devices.
British broadcaster BBC on Tuesday advised its staff to remove TikTok from their phones.
TikTok’s gravest threat is from the United States, where the administration of President Joe Biden has set an ultimatum that the company either dump its Chinese ownership or face an outright ban.
A ban would be an unprecedented act on a media company by the US government, cutting off 150 million monthly users in the country from an application that has become a cultural powerhouse — especially for young people — and the nation’s most viewed source of entertainment after Netflix.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew will say, according to prepared remarks released ahead of the House committee hearing.
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honour such a request if one were ever made,” Chew will add in his opening statement on Thursday.
Despite his assurances, the cards in Washington seemed to be dealt against Chew, with several pieces of legislation, including one bill backed by the White House, already paving the way for a ban on the app.
“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said.
“What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online,” added the Republican.
In the final months of his term, former president Donald Trump also attempted to ban the app, but his effort was ultimately blocked by a US judge.
During that battle, a potential sale to Microsoft or spinoff to Oracle never got off the ground due to the opposition of China.
Beijing last week urged Washington to “stop unreasonably suppressing” TikTok and said the United States has no evidence that TikTok threatens US national security.
In a TikTok post earlier this week, Chew asked US users to defend their favourite app by sharing “what you love” about the platform with elected representatives.
On Wednesday, a group of around a dozen teenagers, teachers and business owners rallied at the US Capitol to express their opposition to a potential ban.
“Are there other platforms out there? Absolutely — I’m on them. But none of them have the reach that TikTok has,” aspiring soapmaking entrepreneur @countrylather2020 told her 70,000 followers in a video recorded after she arrived in Washington.
A sale, even if all parties agreed, would be very complicated.
The success of the platform is due to its powerful recommendation algorithm, and “separating the algorithm between TikTok and ByteDance is like a Siamese twins operation,” analyst Dan Ives of Wedbush told AFP.
TikTok still hopes to appease the authorities.
Chew’s testimony will promote the company’s elaborate plan — known as Project Texas — to satisfy national security concerns in which the handling of US data will be ring-fenced into a US-run division.
He will tell the lawmakers that TikTok has already spent $1.5 billion on the project and hired 1,500 US-based staff to launch it.