TikTok’s chief executive is expected to tell lawmakers in Washington this week that the data of the app’s 150 million U.S. users is being isolated from Chinese authorities.
TikTok CEO Show Tzu Chu will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday and plans to describe a firewall between the company’s US arm and China, or, as Zi Chu puts it, protection from “unauthorized access from the outside.”
This is despite the fact that TikTok’s Beijing-based corporate owner, ByteDance, is subject to China’s data request laws, which require companies to hand over customer information to the government.
“Let me be clear: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Zi Chu said, according to an affidavit released by a House committee on Tuesday night.
Zi Chu will tell a congressional committee about the restructuring of a $1.5 billion company known as “Project Texas” involving Austin-based software giant Oracle, which will store and control the vast amount of personal data TikTok collects from users in the US.
“The bottom line is this: American data is stored on American soil by an American company under the control of American personnel,” Zi Chu plans to tell MPs. “Today, TikTok data in the US is stored by default on Oracle servers. Only verified personnel working for a new company called TikTok US Data Security can control access to this data.”
Zee Chu’s long-awaited appearance in Washington comes as the Biden administration is stepping up pressure on TikTok, the world’s most downloaded app in 2022.
After a two-year national security review, White House officials told TikTok they should drop ByteDance or face harsh penalties in the US, including the possibility of a ban.
Zi Chu is expected to say on Thursday that the forced asset divestment will not solve fundamental problems related to data flows or access to them.
“This is not a question of nationality. All global companies face common challenges that need to be addressed through security and transparency measures. I’m proud that TikTok is leading the way in this area, and I’m excited to continue my conversations with the US. government to make this model even better,” Zi Chu told lawmakers.
However, the National Security Review was conducted by the Commerce Department, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was skeptical that the Biden administration was trying to replicate what President Trump unsuccessfully tried to do: put TikTok out of business in America.
“The politician in me thinks you will literally lose every voter under 35 forever,” Raimondo told Bloomberg News.
Any potential crackdown on TikTok that would include a ban would likely spark a lengthy legal battle. Two federal judges stopped President Trump’s attempt to shut down TikTok, citing violations of free speech and abuse of executive power.
Now, however, senior White House officials and a growing chorus of bipartisan lawmakers continue to view TikTok as a threat, fearing that China’s authoritarian regime could use TikTok data to spy on or blackmail the millions of Americans using the app. every day.
And while there is no evidence that the Chinese government has been trying to access TikTok data, the rhetoric from lawmakers about social media sensations has been epic in recent months.
Republican Michael McCall called TikTok “a spy balloon in your phone” and fellow Republican Mike Gallagher called TikTok “digital fentanyl.”
The company acknowledged that employees in China accessed the data of US users who were journalists who reported leaks from the company, an incident that is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice.
In his speech, Show Tzu said the company learned from the episode.
“…We took immediate action, including a company-wide disclosure, when we learned late last year that some (now former) employees had accessed TikTok user data in an unsuccessful and misguided attempt to track down the source of TikTok’s confidential information leak.”
Tensions between the US and China have been mounting in recent years as federal officials worry about China’s growing technological prowess. Washington is also watching China hold military demonstrations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, not to mention China’s observation balloon crossing US soil.
Included in this tense dynamic is TikTok, which has increasingly become a symbol of the US government’s worst fears about China, even if the real risk to Americans remains theoretical.
TikTok officials have attempted to allay those concerns by creating a separate organization with independent auditors to oversee the app’s powerful algorithm and data feeds. The company has long distanced itself from China, claiming to be a “global company” and pointing out that about 60% of ByteDance’s shares are held by global investors such as the Carlyle Group, General Atlantic and Susquehanna International Group.
Another big concern for lawmakers is how TikTok could impact an entire generation of young people, as TikTok has become something of a cultural mainstay for internet commentary, comedy and political expression.
“TikTok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” Zi Chu plans to say, according to excerpts from his speech. “We will keep safety – especially for teenagers – a top priority.”