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TikTok Five-Hour Testimony: Privacy, Content Moderation Concerns

Shou Zi Chew's five-hour trial before Congress - Answers to Lawmakers' Questions
By Elitsa Kaleva
March 24, 2023

Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, testified in front of the United States Congress for the first time yesterday. At the more than five-hour hearing, Chew tried to dispel concerns about the app's alleged connections with the Chinese government and its ability to moderate "harmful" content. Assuring that TikTok is taking measures that exceed industry standards to protect user data and be transparent, Chew described the platform as one that fosters creativity and curiosity. TikTok currently boasts 150 million monthly users in the US.

The Republican chair of the committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and the ranking Democrat, Frank Pallone, expressed concerns about China's influence on TikTok during the hearing. Chew was asked about his frequency of communication with ByteDance's executives, who are allegedly connected to the Chinese Communist Party. In response to the raised concerns, Chew repeatedly stated that ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, is not controlled by the Chinese government and that he has not seen any evidence that the Chinese government has accessed US user data. Additionally, he stated that TikTok doesn't comply with Chinese government demands regarding content promotion or removal.

“American data is stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” - outlines TikTok's CEO.

Chew mentioned Project Texas during the hearing as a solution, which involves moving all US user data to domestic servers, and that TikTok plans to delete any US user data on servers outside the country by the end of the year.

Legislators, however, expressed doubts about the feasibility and argued that such a large undertaking would not address privacy concerns quickly enough. Legislators also raised issues related to social media, including TikTok's ability to regulate misinformation, harmful content, and material unsuitable for certain age groups. Some legislators used their allotted time to display TikTok videos that encouraged self-harm or suicide. Congressman Gus Bilirakis shared the tragic story of Chase Nasca, a teenager who committed suicide and whose parents have sued ByteDance, claiming that Chase was exposed to unsolicited self-harm content on TikTok. At the hearing, Nasca's parents became emotional as Bilirakis told their son's story.

Chew responded by stating that TikTok employs a team of 40,000 moderators to identify harmful content and uses an algorithm to flag controversial material. He also mentioned that the company would engage third-party validators to review their algorithms and grant access to researchers to study and monitor their content ecosystem.

During the hearing, Democratic Congressman Tony Cárdenas from California asked Chew directly whether TikTok is a Chinese company. Chew pointed out that TikTok has its headquarters in Singapore and Los Angeles and is not accessible from mainland China.

Besides content moderation within the app, TikTok's CEO was also asked about general issues surrounding social media platforms and whether the app supports genocide. As the hearing came to a close, Chew commented that his testimony was a challenging task. Related to a report that members brought up from the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, Chew commented, “Citizen Lab is saying that they cannot prove a negative, which is what I have been trying to do for the last four hours.”

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