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TikTok boss will insist data concerns are being addressed at Congressional hearing

By | Published on Thursday 23 March 2023


As the political pressure continues to build on TikTok, the video-sharing platform’s CEO Shou Zi Chew will appear in US Congress this afternoon to answer the questions of the House Committee On Energy And Commerce. Ahead of that, the committee has published Chew’s written testimony, while TikTok itself has ramped up its lobbying efforts in Washington, including shipping in a bunch of creators who use the platform.

Lawmakers and political leaders in multiple countries continue to express concern that the Chinese government has access to TikTok user-data via its China-based owner Bytedance. Based on those concerns, a number of governments and media organisations have banned their employees from using the app on their official devices. Meanwhile, momentum is building in the US for a complete nationwide ban of the app, similar to that previously attempted by former President Donald Trump.

With all that in mind, Chew – previously a pretty low profile CEO – is now on a mission to allay all of those concerns. This means insisting that the Chinese government does not have access to TikTok data; that systems already in place or currently in development address all and any data security issues that anyone may have; and that any restrictions put in place against TikTok will be an attack on all the creators, businesses and consumers who now rely on the platform.

Stressing just how many Americans utilise TikTok in one way or another – while also bigging up all the ways in which TikTok and its parent company are super responsible – Chew says in his written statement: “There are more than 150 million Americans who love our platform, and we know we have a responsibility to protect them, which is why I’m making the following commitments to you and our users”.

“We will keep safety – particularly for teenagers – a top priority for us”, he declares. “We will firewall protected US user data from unauthorised foreign access; TikTok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government; we will be transparent and give access to third-party independent monitors, to remain accountable for our commitments”.

The lengthy statement runs through all the ways TikTok empowers creators and businesses, and then all the ways in which it is a super responsible platform. Though, of course, it’s the China connections that most of the House committee members are going to be most interested in.

“I am well aware that the fact that ByteDance has Chinese founders has prompted concerns that our platform could be used as or become a tool of China or the Chinese Communist Party”, Chew goes on, noting that that has led to “calls to ban us or require divestment”.

However, he adds, “I steadfastly believe that all concerns that have been raised have solutions. Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives. But we do have an alternative – one that we believe addresses the concerns we’ve heard from this Committee and others”. That alternative in the US is the grand plan TikTok has been working on ever since Trump’s attempts to ban the app which will see it work with US-based Oracle to safeguard American user-data.

Under that plan, Chew explains, “data of all Americans will be stored in America, hosted by an American headquartered company, with access to the data controlled by [new subsidiary TikTok US Data Security]”. And, therefore, “we do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150 million Americans, and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem”.

He also stressed that, while Bytedance has Chinese founders, roughly 60% of its stock is controlled by global institutional investors, while about 20% of the shares are actually owned by the company’s employees, “including thousands of Americans”.

“Let me state this unequivocally”, he goes on, “ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country. However, for the reasons discussed above, you don’t simply have to take my word on that. Rather, our approach has been to work transparently and cooperatively with the US government and Oracle to design robust solutions to address concerns about TikTok’s heritage”.

We await to see whether any of TikTok’s critics in Congress and beyond are placated by Chew’s performance later today.

Given how important TikTok has become as a marketing tool within the music business, the music industry is watching all this closely. Though there’s another TikTok initiative that is also of interest to music community that is less political. And that is TikTok’s decision to remove some music from its audio clips library for some users in Australia, which is widely seen as being linked to the social media firm’s current negotiations regarding the future of its music licences.

With the record labels and music publishers keen to get more cash out of TikTok, it’s assumed that Bytedance hopes to use that experiment in Australia to try and play down the vital role music plays on the platform, and therefore push down the value of its licensing deals.

Though, according to Bloomberg, since access to music was restricted the number of people using TikTok in Australia – and the average time people spend on the app – has declined.

Or at least so says research firm, which also notes that similar declines were not seen in other markets, nor on Instagram or YouTube within Australia, suggesting that the music restrictions likely contributed to that decline.

TikTok itself hasn’t commented on any of that, though if true, the experiment could actually help the music companies as they push to earn more from the TikTok app.