So how did TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s appearance before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce go today?
Well, it’s hard to say – amid the regular smattering of accusations framed as questions, and vague queries that seemed to misunderstand how the internet itself works, Chew mostly seemed to provide carefully worded answers, while fending off anything too difficult by saying that he’d look into it.
In a crucial hearing, which could decide the future of the app in the US, Chew provided a passionate defense of the platform, and sought to address US regulatory concerns, with the key issue being the potential of American user data being shared with the Chinese Government.
Chew sought to dispel this notion, while TikTok also posted a public statement on this:
4/ TikTok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government.
— TikTokComms (@TikTokComms) March 23, 2023
Chew was pressed on various aspects, relating to TikTok’s past actions on censorship (i.e. whether it censors content critical of the CCP), its accessing of US user data to track journalists, it’s algorithm, youth safety aspects, and more.
For the most part, Chew was able to navigate the various questions without making any definitive commitments. But at the same time, his appearance, by various accounts, wasn’t overly assuring, or convincing, in regards to winning over US senators.
In particular, when pressed on whether ByteDance employees have spied on US citizens in the past, Chew deferred, saying that ‘I don’t think spying is the right way to describe it’. Chew also questioned the track record of American companies on user data, when asked about a potential divestment from ByteDance – which seems like a fair comparison, but is unlikely to resonate with US officials.
But the key statement of Chew’s appearance was this:
“The bottom line is this – American data is stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.”
This was from Chew’s pre-prepared testimony, in which Chew explained that ‘Project Texas’, TikTok’s multi-billion dollar plan to separate US user data from its Chinese parent company, will secure US user data in the US, making it entirely inaccessible to China-based staff.
TikTok’s hope is that this effort will be enough to assure US regulators that American users are safe.
But then again, when pressed on another key point, as to whether TikTok would ever consider selling user data, Chew refused to provide a firm commitment, noting, instead, that he would seek further clarification before providing an answer.
At the end of this, it still remains difficult to determine where TikTok is placed, in regards to the possibility of a full ban in the US. Even worse, the Chinese Government has once again shared its opposition to the forced sell-off of the app, which means that if TikTok is banned by the US Government, a sell-off into local hands may not be an option.
Which, once again, underlines the fact that TikTok’s future hinges on how US politicians perceive Chew’s testimony.
Was he convincing enough in his explanations? Has TikTok done enough to assure policymakers of its intentions? Will Project Texas be enough to demonstrate separation of access within parent company ByteDance?
Really, the next steps are likely out of Chew’s hands either way, as it still feels like the rising tensions between the US and China will be the key determinate. Last month’s spy balloon incident raised the hackles of those concerned about Chinese interference, weighing further against TikTok, while this week’s meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin has further stoked concerns.
In this respect, it feels like TikTok is caught in the middle amidst a much broader disagreement between the two nations, and it another incident of this type could end up being the thing that makes or breaks TikTok in the US.
Any further indication of Chinese defiance, specifically against the US, could force the White House to act. So while Chew may have done his best, maybe there’s nothing he could do within the broader context.