TikTok CEO faces congressional grilling over national security concerns

Chew tried to rebut what he says are “myths” about TikTok’s relationship with Beijing. “teDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said in testimony before the committee. He said TikTok is headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore and the company has never shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, and that U.S. data is stored in the U.S.

“TikTok will be a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” he said.

The app is wildly popular in the U.S. — particularly with younger Americans — and that will make it politically difficult for the Biden administration to do anything sweeping. Given it’s enormous user base, only the biggest and wealthiest tech companies could conceivably afford it, and a sale to one of those giants would almost surely run afoul of Biden’s antitrust regulators, who have been waging an aggressive campaign to rein in Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook.

Still, the White House is pressing forward. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — a secretive panel made up of a number of Biden administration agencies — has reportedly told TikTok’s Chinese owners that they must sell the app or risk an outright ban. And President Joe Biden signed a bill into law last year banning TikTok on all federal devices, while more than 30 states have also banned the app on state government devices.

At the same time, an outright ban runs the risk of angering younger voters, not to mention the various content creators who have been canvassing Capitol Hill in recent days to argue against such a move.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in comments Thursday if the app was banned nationwide, the creators will find a home elsewhere. “I absolutely believe in the market if TikTok were somehow to drop away tomorrow,” Warner said on CNN. “Whether it’s an American company, a French company, an Indian company, there will be a replacement site where people can still be creative and earn that kind of living.”

Been Tried Before

Washington has been wrangling with what to do about TikTok for years, even as the app has become deeply enmeshed in American popular culture.

Last fall, TikTok reportedly reached an agreement with the Biden administration to create a separate U.S. entity — known as TikTok U.S. Data Security — with its own board of directors that is approved by the administration and ensures all U.S. data is secured and stored on U.S.-based servers run by Oracle. But the two sides have been fighting over the potential national security risks ever since.

The Trump administration also made its own bid, issuing an executive order in 2020 seeking to ban the app in the U.S. if it didn’t find a U.S. buyer quickly — which it failed to. That effort was swiftly struck down by a U.S. court, and any move by the current White House to outright ban the app would almost surely face similar legal hurdles.

With those previous failures in mind, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing legislation they say would help Biden successfully move forward with a ban.

WarnerJohn Thune (R-S.D.) — the RESTRICT Act — which would give the executive branch authority to prohibit some technology from foreign adversaries. “While I appreciate Mr. Chew’s willingness to answer questions before Congress, TikTok’s lack of transparency, repeated obfuscations, and misstatements of fact have severely undermined the credibility of any statements by TikTok employees, including Mr. Chew,” Warner said in a statement.

There’s no House version of the RESTRICT Act yet, but Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a member on House Energy and Commerce, said she likes the Senate bill. “It certainly seems like a better approach than legislation previously introduced in the House,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

The Thune and Warner teams are actively engaged with the House and would welcome a House version, a Senate aide told POLITICO.