'Misreading the room by a mile': TikTok CEO defends app amid allegations that it spied on journalists
TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew faced a grilling by the United States House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday over reports that the popular app had misused data that it obtained from American users.
TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, admitted that it did and the matter is now being investigated by the Department of Justice. Nonetheless, Chew maintained to lawmakers that the company has amended its practices to prevent similar incidents in the future.
They were highly skeptical of that, particularly because of TikTok's purported connections to the Chinese Communist Party.
"This hearing is an abject disaster for TikTok," tweeted PunchBowlNews senior congressional reporter Andrew Desiderio. An hour later, Desiderio noted that the "TikTok CEO is asked whether parent company ByteDance has spied on Americans at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party. 'I don’t think 'spying' is the right way to describe it,' Shou Chew responds. Incredible."
Peter Hamby of Puck News shared a concurring opinion.
"One of the biggest miscalculations TikTok made here was coming into this hearing bragging about how deeply enmeshed TikTok is in American society," he wrote. "Misreading the room by a mile."
What Desiderio observed actually happened multiple times.
For example, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington), the Committee chair, asked Chew if he could "say with one-hundred percent certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques?"
"Chair Rogers, I, first of all, disagree with the characterization that is spying. Um, it was an internal investigation..." he stated
"Surveillance? Yes or no? Can you do surveillance of other Americans?" McMorris Rodgers reiterated.
"We, we will protect the US user data and fire it all from all unwanted foreign access. It's a commitment that we've given to the Committee," Chew said.
"So, so I guess my question is, are, can I want you to, I wanted to hear you say with one-hundred percent certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques as you did with the journalists," McMorris Rodgers pressed again.
"Again, I, I don't disagree with the character characterization in surveillance, and we have given our commitments, Chair Rogers, the four commitments," Chew replied. "I think it's a commitment that we will not be influenced by any government on these issues."
Chew also sparred with Congressman Neal Dunn (R-Florida).
"And they were going to follow individual American citizens. I ask you again, Mr. Chew, has ByteDance spied on American citizens?" Dunn queried.
"I don't think that spying is the right way to describe it. This is ultimately, this is ultimately an internal investigation..." Chew began before Dunn cut him off.
"We can differ on that," Dunn said. Any TikTok or ByteDance data that is viewed, stored, or passes through China is subject to the laws of China, a one-party authoritarian state."
Yet Chew stuck to his version of events, explaining to Congressman Darren Soto (D-Florida) that TikTok is no more irresponsible with data than other social media giants.
"... Negotiated with your company about this Oracle setup that you've talked about, servers in an American company in, in American, Texas, and then Oracle would monitor the algorithms. But pressure is mounting. So Mr. Crew, would TikTok be prepared to divest from ByteDance and uh, Chinese Communist Party ties if the Department of Treasury instructed you all to do?" Soto asked.
"Congressman, I said in my opening statement, I think we are need to address the problem of privacy. I agree with you. I don't think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect, American social companies don't have a good track record with data privacy and user security," Chew said. "I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example. So, So, uh, I, I do think that, you know, it is not about the ownership. It is a lot about making sure we have project taxes, making sure that we're protecting and firewalling US user data from unwanted foreign access, giving third parties to come in to have a look at this and making sure that everybody is comfortable."
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