WASHINGTON, March 24, 2023 — TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced bipartisan hostility from House lawmakers during a high-profile hearing on Thursday, struggling to alleviate concerns about the platform’s safety and security risks amid growing calls for the app to be banned from the United States altogether.
For more than five hours, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee lobbed criticisms at TikTok, often leaving Chew little or no time to address their critiques.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation,” Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., told Chew at the start of the hearing. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement after the hearing.
In a viral TikTok video posted Tuesday, and again in his opening statement, Chew noted that the app has over 150 million active monthly users in the United States. TikTok has also become a place where “close to 5 million American businesses — mostly small businesses — go to find new customers and to fuel their growth,” he said.
But McMorris Rodgers argued that the platform’s significant reach only “emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act.”
Lawmakers condemn TikTok’s impact on youth safety and mental health
One of the top concerns highlighted by both Republicans and Democrats was the risk TikTok poses to the wellbeing of children and teens.
“Research has found that TikTok’s addictive algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders,” said Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
Chew emphasized TikTok’s commitment to removing explicitly harmful or violative content. The company is also working with entities such as the Boston Children’s Hospital to find models for content that might harm young viewers if shown too frequently, even if the content is not inherently negative — for example, videos of extreme fitness regimens, Chew explained.
In addition, Chew listed several safeguards that TikTok has recently implemented for underage users, such as daily default time limits and the prevention of private messaging for users under 16.
However, few lawmakers seemed interested in these measures, with some noting that they appeared to lack enforceability. Others emphasized the tangible costs of weak safety policies, pointing to multiple youth deaths linked to the app.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., shared the story of a 16-year-old boy who died by suicide after being served hundreds of TikTok videos glorifying suicidal ideation, self-harm and depression — even though such content was unrelated to his search history, according to a lawsuit filed by his parents against the platform.
At the hearing, Bilirakis underscored his concern by playing a series of TikTok videos with explicit descriptions of suicide, accompanied by messages such as “death is a gift” and “Player Tip: K!ll Yourself.”
“Your company destroyed their lives,” Bilirakis told Chew, gesturing toward the teen’s parents. “Your technology is literally leading to death, Mr. Chew.”
Watch Rep. Bilirakis’ keynote address from the Big Tech & Speech Summit.
Other lawmakers noted that this death was not an isolated incident. “There are those on this committee, including myself, who believe that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through Tik Tok to deliberately influence U.S. children,” said Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga.
TikTok CEO emphasizes U.S. operations, denies CCP ties
Listing several viral “challenges” encouraging dangerous behaviors and substance abuse, Carter questioned why TikTok “consistently fails to identify and moderate these kinds of harmful videos” — and claimed that no such content was present on Douyin, the version of the app available in China.
Screenshot of Rep. Buddy Carter courtesy of CSPAN
Chew urged legislators to compare TikTok’s practices with those of other U.S. social media companies, rather than a version of the platform operating in an entirely different regulatory environment. “This is an industry challenge for all of us here,” he said.
Douyin heavily restricts political and controversial content in order to comply with China’s censorship regime, while the U.S. currently grants online platforms broad liability for third-party content.
In response to repeated accusations of CCP-driven censorship, particularly regarding the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur population, Chew maintained that related content “is available on our platform — you can go and search it.”
“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he repeatedly stated.
A TikTok search for “Uygher genocide” on Thursday morning primarily displayed videos that were critical of the Chinese government, Broadband Breakfast found. The search also returned a brief description stating that China “has committed a series of ongoing human rights abuses against Uyghers and other ethnic and religious minorities,” drawn from Wikipedia and pointing users to the U.S.-based website’s full article on the topic.
TikTok concerns bolster calls for Section 230 reform
Although much of the hearing was specifically targeted toward TikTok, some lawmakers used those concerns to bolster an ongoing Congressional push for Section 230 reform.
“Last year, a federal judge in Pennsylvania found that Section 230 protected TikTok from being held responsible for the death of a 10-year-old girl who participated in a blackout challenge,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. “This company is a picture-perfect example of why this committee in Congress needs to take action immediately to amend Section 230.”
In response, Chew referenced Latta’s earlier remarks about Section 230’s historical importance for online innovation and growth.
“As you pointed out, 230 has been very important for freedom of expression on the internet,” Chew said. “[Free expression] is one of the commitments we have given to this committee and our users, and I do think it’s important to preserve that. But companies should be raising the bar on safety.”
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah., asked if TikTok’s use of algorithmic recommendations should forfeit the company’s Section 230 protections — echoing the question at the core of Gonzalez v. Google, which was argued before the Supreme Court in February.
Other inquiries were more pointed. Chew declined to answer a question from Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, about whether “censoring history and historical facts and current events should be protected by Section 230’s good faith requirement.”
Weber’s question seemed to incorrectly suggest that the broad immunity provided by Section 230 (c)(1) is conditioned on the “good faith” referenced in in part (c)(2)(A) of the statute.
Ranking member says ongoing data privacy initiative is unacceptable
Chew frequently pointed to TikTok’s “Project Texas” initiative as a solution to a wide range of data privacy concerns. “The bottom line is this: American data, stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” he said.
All U.S. user data is now routed by default to Texas-based company Oracle, Chew added, and the company aims to delete legacy data currently stored in Virginia and Singapore by the end of the year.
Several lawmakers pointed to a Thursday Wall Street Journal article in which China’s Commerce Ministry reportedly said that a sale of TikTok would require exporting technology, and therefore would be subject to approval from the Chinese government.
When asked if Chinese government approval was required for Project Texas, Chew replied, “We do not believe so.”
But many legislators remained skeptical. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do, and so this idea — this ‘Project Texas’ — is simply not acceptable,” Pallone said.