WASHINGTON (CN) — A video of a firing handgun punctuated a hearing Thursday morning with the CEO of TikTok as some lawmakers pushed for a national ban against the social media platform.
The short TikTok clip, played by Florida Representative Kat Cammack, depicted what appeared to be a 3D rendering of a Glock 17 handgun firing with the caption “me asf [as f**k] at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 03/23/23.”
After Cammack showed the video posted Feb. 10 during the meeting of the lower chamber’s energy panel, TikTok moderators quickly removed it. The clip had a little over 450 likes — thin gruel for a platform where some creators command engagement in the hundreds of thousands — but lawmakers positioned it regardless as an example of the threat posed by TikTok.
Cammack called it a blatant display of how vulnerable everyday users are on the platform.
“This video has been up for 41 days,” the Florida Republican told TikTok CEO Shou Chew, who was invited to give testimony. “It is a direct threat to the chairwoman of this committee and the people in this room. … You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data privacy and security of 150 million Americans, when you can’t even protect the people in this room?”
California Democrat Tony Càrdenas asked Chew for his feelings about the revelation that his platform had hosted a video for over a month that threatened members of Congress.
“It goes to show the enormous challenge that we have,” Chew said. “Although the vast majority of our users come for a good experience, we need to make sure that bad actors don’t post violating content.”
Both parties raked Chew over the coals during Thursday’s hearing, both about TikTok's efforts to keep user data secure and its ties to China.
The social media giant is a subsidiary of Beijing-based technology company ByteDance. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have fretted about the influence of the Chinese government over content made available on TikTok.
In addition to those concerns, members of Congress blasted Chew for what they said was poor content moderation that promoted potentially harmful videos to the platform’s millions of users, particularly children.
During what was often a heated hearing, Chew argued that his platform is taking steps to keep user data secure, repeatedly referencing TikTok’s billion-dollar security upgrade project known as Project Texas.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns, and we have addressed them with real action,” Chew said in his opening statement. “That’s what we have been doing for the last two years, building … a firewall that is used to protect U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access.”
Chew also pushed back on the perception that ByteDance has been co-opted by the Chinese government, which he called a misconception.
ByteDance is a private company, not controlled by Beijing, he contended, and half of its assets are owned by a cadre of global investors, including some in the U.S. Several of ByteDance’s board members are American, Chew added.
The CEO also pointed out that U.S.-based tech companies don’t have a much better track record where data privacy is concerned, pointing to the 2018 scandal in which research firm Cambridge Analytica accessed the data of millions of Facebook users while working for then-President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
Despite those efforts to placate lawmakers, the panel needled Chew on TikTok’s current data security and content moderation — and it did not seem pleased with his answers.
“I don’t find that what you suggested with Project Texas and this firewall … will be acceptable to me,” said committee ranking member Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat. “I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will control and have the ability to influence what you do.”
Pallone asked Chew to commit to blocking TikTok from selling its user data to third parties. While Chew said the platform does not sell data to data brokers, he did not totally shut the door on such a practice. The TikTok CEO also would not commit to doing away with targeted advertising aimed at young people.
“It’s something we can look into and get back to you,” Chew said.
Calls are mounting in Congress to ban TikTok in the U.S. A bill introduced in January by Michigan Congressman Jack Bergman would give the White House the authority to sanction software developers that provide data to foreign countries. The measure would also direct the State Department to look into whether TikTok and messaging app WeChat would fall under such a category.
Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered opening remarks Thursday in which she renewed her own push to ban the platform.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” the Washington Republican told Chew. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”
The Biden administration, which supports a ban, has said that TikTok could sidestep such an action by divesting from parent company ByteDance. Chew took that option off the table.
“Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” the TikTok CEO said Thursday.
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