Senators grilled a top TikTok executive on Wednesday about whether the viral video app could leak data to the Chinese government, the primary time a pacesetter at the corporate has had to reply to lawmakers in public about recent reports on its ties to Beijing.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee repeatedly asked TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, about whether the corporate would ever provide data about Americans to Chinese officials or delete content at their request. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, relies in China.
Many lawmakers and regulators have expressed concern that ByteDance could hand over data about its users, lots of whom are young people, to the Chinese government, or that Beijing will use it as a strategy to spread propaganda.
But Ms. Pappas, who previously worked at YouTube, repeatedly insisted that the app wouldn’t cave to demands from the Chinese government. She said that the corporate had never sent data to the Chinese Communist Party, and that ByteDance was not headquartered in China since it didn’t have any headquarters in any respect.
“We do have employees based in China,” she said. “We even have very strict access controls across the form of data that they will access and where that data is stored, which is here in the US. And we’ve also said not at all would we give that data to China.”
The criticism of TikTok, certainly one of the world’s hottest apps, gained momentum this summer after BuzzFeed News reported that TikTok’s American data was still accessible in China earlier this 12 months. After the articles, quite a few lawmakers and regulators demanded answers from TikTok and its chief executive, Shou Zi Chew. Some also asked Google and Apple to ban downloads of the app from their digital storefronts and called on the Federal Trade Commission to research the corporate. Some lawmakers have questioned whether TikTok was truthful in its previous conversation with Congress.
“I’m highly concerned about TikTok and the way China could also be leveraging their influence to access the platform’s data on Americans,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the committee’s top Republican, said on the hearing.
The app’s popularity has nonetheless continued to grow. Greater than a billion people use TikTok, flocking to its feed of seemingly unlimited videos for content starting from makeup tutorials and lip-syncing to political rants. The app’s reach has given it influence over culture, helping to show songs, books and even movies into hits.
In response to the questions, ByteDance has raced to construct a lobbying operation that may counter its critics. It spent roughly $5.1 million on federal lobbying last 12 months, based on OpenSecrets, a research group that tracks money in politics. It sends congressional staffs positive news articles concerning the app, and has pushed back aggressively on the recent media reports.
A few of that very same pushback was apparent on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Lawmakers also questioned executives from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, about issues including extremists on their platforms. But lots of essentially the most pointed exchanges were between Ms. Pappas and the senators.
“In what ways does the federal government of the People’s Republic of China, if in any respect, exercise influence over TikTok’s corporate behavior or corporate policies?” asked Senator Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia.
“By no means, shape or form — period,” Ms. Pappas said.
The app previously faced pressure from former President Donald J. Trump, who tried to get ByteDance to sell the app to an American company. That didn’t come to pass, and skeptics of the app say President Biden has not done enough to deal with their concerns. TikTok has been negotiating in private with the Biden administration over steps that would mitigate the federal government’s concerns.
It has begun to route recent traffic through servers controlled by Oracle, the American cloud computing company, although some data remains to be backed up on ByteDance servers in Singapore and Virginia. The corporate says it is going to eventually delete all the information from its own servers.
Ms. Pappas tried to distance the app from China further by saying ByteDance is a “distributed company” without headquarters.
“ByteDance is founded in China, but we do not need an official headquarters as a worldwide company,” she said.
Her answers didn’t appear to satisfy lots of the lawmakers. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, repeatedly asked if any TikTok employees were members of the Chinese Communist Party. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said she desired to follow up with Ms. Pappas about how the app handles users’ biometric data. And Mr. Portman said he was apprehensive that Ms. Pappas wouldn’t commit to TikTok’s totally cutting off data access for workers in China.
“I’m concerned that you simply’re not capable of answer the query, except to say that you’re going to not make the commitment to cutting off this data to China,” he said.