(Reuters) – TikTok’s chief executive faced tough questions on Thursday from lawmakers who are convinced the Chinese-owned short video app should be barred for being a “tool” of the Chinese Communist Party and because it carries content that can harm children’s mental health.
CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress capped a week of actions by the Chinese company aimed at convincing Americans and their lawmakers that the app creates economic value and supports free speech. Instead, members of Congress accused the company of spying and deception, adding to calls to ban the app.
TikTok, which has more than 150 million American users, was repeatedly hammered in the ongoing hearing where no lawmaker offered any support. Many, who often noted they themselves were parents, talked of a need to rein in the power held by the app over U.S. children.
Overall, lawmakers called Chew’s answers on China and content aimed at children as evasive, with Democratic Representative Tony Cardenas saying Chew was a “good dancer with words” at the top of his comments about Chew’s answers throughout the testimony.
“TikTok could be designed to minimize the harm to kids, but a decision was made to aggressively addict kids in the name of profits,” said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, at the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee hearing.
Chew responded to many pointed questions by saying the issues were “complex.” He did not announce any new efforts to safeguard privacy, falling back on explanations of ongoing efforts, which have failed to appease critics.
Republicans and Democrats also raised numerous concerns about its potential to threaten U.S. national security by sharing its data with the Chinese government.
TikTok has said it has spent more than $1.5 billion on what it calls rigorous data security efforts under the name “Project Texas” that currently has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle Corp (ORCL.N) to store TikTok’s U.S. user data. It also says it strictly screens content that could harm children.
Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat, said TikTok’s efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform were not working.
Chew said the company was investing in content moderation and artificial intelligence to limit such content.
DeGette said TikTok’s actions were not enough.
“You gave me only generalized statements that you’re investing, that you’re concerned, that you’re doing work. That’s not enough for me. That’s not enough for the parents of America,” DeGette said.
Shares of U.S. social media companies rose on Thursday, with Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc (META.O) up 3.4% and Snap Inc (SNAP.N) up 4.2%.
Wedbush analyst Dan Ives on Twitter said, “TikTok CEO testimony so far we would characterize as a ‘mini disaster’ for this key moment for TikTok. TikTok is now poster child of the US/China tensions and lawmakers have a lot of q’s with not enough concrete answers.”
Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, set the tone of the hearing by saying, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable – from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” she said, adding that the Chinese Communist Party “is able to use (TikTok) as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.”
Chew, who began his testimony speaking about his own Singaporean roots, said, “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government.”
He added: “It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government.”
But the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Frank Pallone, argued with that statement, saying, “You’re gonna continue to gather data, you’re gonna continue to sell data … and continue to be under the aegis of the Communist Party.”
TikTok last week said President Joe Biden’s administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban. When asked about divestiture, Chew said the issue was “not about the ownership.”
China’s Ministry of Commerce at a briefing on Thursday said that “forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States. If the news is true, China will firmly oppose it.”
“The sale or divestiture of TikTok involves technology export, and administrative licensing procedures must be performed in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations, and the Chinese government will make a decision in accordance with the law,” the ministry representative added.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner on Wednesday said two additional senators backed his bipartisan legislation with Republican John Thune to give the Biden administration new powers to ban TikTok – raising the total to 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.