TikTok logo with silouettes of people using phones

TikTok pushes back against US and UK opposition

Image credit: Foto 184375111 © Peter KovÃ¡Ä | Dreamstime.com

TikTok faces increasing international opposition, as US lawmakers questioned the company's CEO in a congressional hearing and the UK bans the social media app from Parliamentary networks and devices.

TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have become the focus of a geopolitical trade and technology dispute between Beijing and Washington, as the company tries to prevent further regulatory restrictions. 

Shou Zi Chew, the social media app's CEO, faced four and a half hours of what TikTok described as "grandstanding" questioning from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers. The Congressmen questioned TikTok's links to the Chinese administration and the effects that the short-video platform could have on children's well-being. 

“Mr Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in her opening statement. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation.”

The executive’s testimony came at a crucial time for the company, which has acquired 150 million US users despite calls for a country-wide ban.

During the hearing, Chew repeatedly denied the accusation that the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party and argued the platform was building a "firewall" to seal off the data of US users.

"The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel," Chew said. "We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government."

In preparation for the hearing, the company had sent dozens of popular TikTokers to Capitol Hill to lobby politicians to preserve the platform, as well as placing advertisements stating the app's privacy and security features. 

In the past, the company has admitted to accessing data on two journalists that were reporting on the company, as well as people connected to them. In 2019, the Guardian reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that showcase the Chinese government in a negative light. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.

In addition to the security concerns, lawmakers accused TikTok of promoting content that encourages eating disorders among children, illegal drug sales and sexual exploitation.

"Your technology is literally leading to death," said Representative Gus Bilirakis. "We must save our children from big tech companies like yours, who continue to abuse and manipulate them for your own gain."

Chew told Bilirakis that TikTok takes the issue of suicide and self-harm "very, very seriously."

While the hearing was ongoing, secretary of state Antony Blinken was questioned about whether he thought the platform is a security threat to the United States. Blinken said he believed so. 

When asked whether the app should be banned, he replied: “It should be ended one way or another. But there are different ways of doing that."

Wealth management firm Wedbush described the hearing as a “disaster” for TikTok that made a ban more likely if the social media platform does not separate from its Chinese parent.

In the UK, Parliament has announced it will block TikTok from its networks, following last week's decision to ban the app from official devices. The Scottish government soon followed suit, citing national security concerns. 

Ministers and officials will still be permitted to use the Chinese-owned app on their personal devices, but not using Parliamentary Wi-Fi. 

“Cyber security is a top priority for Parliament. However, we do not comment on specific details of our cyber or physical security controls, policies or incidents,” a spokesman said.

TikTok called Parliament’s move “misguided and based on fundamental misconceptions about our company”.

A spokesman said: “TikTok is enjoyed by millions of people in the UK and potentially depriving users from access to and engagement with their representatives is a self-defeating step, especially in our shared fight against misinformation”.

Last week, TikTok revealed the Biden administration had demanded the company's Chinese owners divest their stake or face a potential ban.

In December 2022, the US proposed legislation that would “block and prohibit all transactions” in the US by social media companies with at least one million monthly users that are based in, or under the “substantial influence” of, countries that are considered foreign adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. 

TikTok has previously faced an effective ban in the US, following an executive order by former President Trump barring new downloads in 2022, which was eventually blocked by a judge. However, that same year, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US also ordered ByteDance to sell TikTok. Negotiations around this issue are still ongoing, although any divestment would require approval by the Chinese Communist Party, which strongly opposes such a move.

In the past few months, at least seven US states have banned TikTok from official devices, including Maryland, South Dakota and Utah. The US military, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have also restricted TikTok from devices under their control, citing security concerns. Other countries and territories, including Canada and the European Commission, have also implemented similar bans. 

E&T's Paul Dempsey analysed Chew's hearing, raising doubts over whether the CEO's statements had been enough to avoid a nationwide ban. 

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