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Lawmakers turn up pressure on TikTok CEO for data insight

One month after a contentious hearing on the Hill, House Democrats have a laundry list of questions for the head of the social media platform.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid calls from some members of Congress to ban social media giant TikTok in the U.S., a group of Democratic lawmakers told the company’s CEO Thursday that they are more concerned than ever about the platform’s access to private user data.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew worked to placate such fears last month at an often-tense hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers appear little moved, however, by Chew’s claims that TikTok is working to wall off U.S. user data from foreign access or by his complaints that other social media companies have received less scrutiny.

“Last month’s hearing reinforced Americans’ fears that social media platforms, including TikTok, have been collecting, using, sharing, and selling their data without meaningful limits,” House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone told Chew in a letter dated Thursday.

Pallone said that TikTok is emblematic of concerns that social media platforms are monetizing user data to increase revenue, specifically by allowing advertisers to target their marketing towards minors. The platform’s approach to data privacy is especially important, the New Jersey Democrat reasoned, because it is owned by China-based software company ByteDance.

Lawmakers have long sounded the alarm about TikTok’s Chinese ownership, arguing that it makes the social media company susceptible to influence from Beijing. Chew testified in March that ByteDance is a private company not beholden to the Chinese government, and that it is owned by a group of global investors.

Pallone complained, meanwhile, that Chew had not answered many of his or his Democratic colleagues’ questions during last month’s hearing.

“We were hoping that you could allay some of our concerns at the hearing, but unfortunately many of our questions remain unanswered,” the congressman wrote. Around 30 of those questions made their way into Pallone’s letter.

Among other things, House Democrats again asked the CEO if he would commit not to sell American user data to third parties, including TikTok subsidiaries or parent company ByteDance. Lawmakers also asked Chew to resolve to end targeted advertising on the platform for children under the age of 18.

Pallone himself asked Chew to make similar commitments in March. The TikTok CEO said in reply that his company did not sell data to third-party data brokers, but Chew refused to explicitly say whether he would comply with either request.

Lawmakers also demanded that TikTok expand on its efforts to police its platform for content that contains misinformation about elections, health care and abortion. They asked Chew to provide statistics on the number of views violating posts receive before they are taken down by moderators.

Further, Thursday’s letter requests more information on Project Texas, TikTok’s billion-dollar security upgrade aimed at centralizing American user data. House Democrats asked for a breakdown of the $1.5 billion or so the company has spent on the program and exactly how TikTok would use it to keep Americans’ data safely stored in the U.S.

A TikTok spokesperson noted Thursday that the company “look[s] forward to the opportunity to address the Committee members' questions.”

During March’s hearing, Pallone made it clear that he wasn’t buying claims that TikTok was taking steps to address U.S. data security, and that he thought the platform was under China’s thumb.

“I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will control and have the ability to influence what you do,” the Democrat told Chew at the time.

Support is increasing in Congress and elsewhere for a national ban of TikTok — although not every lawmaker is on board. On March 30, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blocked an attempt by his Senate Republican colleagues to expedite consideration of such action, arguing on the Senate floor that a ban could threaten free speech rights.

The Biden administration has said it would support banning TikTok, but that it would stay its hand if ByteDance sold the company to an American firm. Chew has said divestment is off the table.

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Categories / Consumers, Government, Media, Technology

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