TikTok CEO faces congress over security concerns

The US government, worried about China's manipulation, seeks to manipulate TikTok to do what it wants.

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In a wildly dramatic and painful-to-watch session, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress in a hearing that will determine the future of the social media app.

Just as US user adoption hit 150 million, the CEO faced tough questions from out-of-touch congresspeople about safety, privacy, selling data, and security concerns. Here’s what happened:

“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 (R-WA) said in her opening statement. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation.”

Privacy and security. Let’s remember there is no evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, but policymakers fear that the Chinese government could compel the company to do so. Chew said data from U.S. users stored on servers in Virginia and Singapore are being deleted. “We expect that to be complete this year. When that is done, all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law.”

The company has created “what amounts to a firewall that seals off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access,” Chew said. “American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.”

Chew made 4 commitments to U.S. lawmakers:

  1. Prioritizing safety for young users
  2. Firewall protection for U.S. user data
  3. The app will remain a place for free expression & ‘will not be manipulated by any government’
  4. Transparency

Surveillance concerns. McMorris Rodgers pressed Chew on surveillance. “Can you say with 100% percent certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target…Americans with…surveillance techniques?”, she asked. Chew responded, “I disagree with the characterization of surveillance.”

While Chew did not deny employees at TikTok’s parent company in China have access to Americans’ sensitive user data, so do employees at every other social media platform. He said TikTok isn’t unique and doesn’t collect more data than others.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked Chew: “Does TikTok access the home WiFi network?”

After a five-minute rant from Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), Chew asked to respond to questions and comments but was told, “No. We’re going to move on.”

Save our children. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) showed a compilation of TikTok videos encouraging suicide and death. “Your technology is literally leading to death,” he told Chew. Chew asked to respond, but was cut off mid-sentence in what seemed more like a show than an effort to extract any meaningful information.

Rep. Kathy Castor (R-FL) said Tik Tok’s algorithm is the cause of some suicides. She said Facebook and Instagram were given the same message when appearing before Congress, but did nothing to prevent kids from self-harm.

Here’s what Twitter thought. An overwhelming majority of people watching and live Tweeting the hearing noticed that congress didn’t let Chew respond to questions and accusations.

Dig deeper. Watch it live. If you have the patience.

Why we care. This hearing was mostly theater starring politicians who are ignorant of the topic and ill-prepared by their staffs. We’ve seen the scenario play out in hearings involving other social media and tech companies.

But political/social commentary is the purview of others. We’ll focus on what it means for you as advertising professionals.

It’s apparent Congressional action that significantly restricts access to TikTok would reduce the number of users, making the platform less attractive to advertisers. Search will be rolling out on TikTok soon. Action limiting access to would likely extinguish any chance TikTok has of challenging Google and Microsoft.

Brands are always concerned about their reputation, and some may not want to risk advertising on the platform with so much political smoke in the air. Advertisers are certain to be evaluating their TikTok spend through that lens in light of the negative tone of the hearing.

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About the author

Nicole Farley
Nicole Farley is the founder of Web Sprout, an inbound marketing agency. She formerly was PPC Editor for Search Engine Land (from 2022-2023), covering paid search, paid social, Google Analytics and more. In addition to being a Marine Corps veteran, she has an extensive background in digital marketing, an MBA and a penchant for true crime, podcasts, travel, and snacks.

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