At his first Congressional testimony, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew arrived armed with a plan to address mounting national security concerns about the video app’s Chinese owner. But he was met with an unusually hostile and unified coalition of lawmakers, who took turns admonishing him as untrustworthy, in a five-hour thrashing that underscored the wildly popular app’s precarious future in the United States
Lawmakers from both parties sought to tie Chew personally to individuals in the Chinese Communist Party, frequently interrupting him and calling him “evasive.” They repeatedly reminded him that he could face criminal penalties for lying to Congress, as he unsuccessfully attempted to convince them that he could safely steward Americans’ data and shield TikTok from foreign manipulation.
“TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said she supported banning the app outright.
House panel grilled TikTok CEO for 5 hours about app’s ties to China
Chew’s appearance thrusts TikTok deeper into a geopolitical standoff between two great economic powers, as support for a ban swells among lawmakers, while key constitutional and legal barriers remain.
Senior Biden administration officials do not believe they have the legal authority to ban TikTok without an act of Congress, according to one person with knowledge of internal government discussions. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private deliberations.
The uncertainty follows an announcement from the Beijing government, hours before Chew’s testimony, that it would strongly oppose any forced sale of TikTok. Such a move would “seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China,” said Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Shu Jueting, essentially torpedoing the administration’s plan to push TikTok’s Chinese owners to divest from the app.
Yet the Biden administration faces a narrowing set of options to limit TikTok, and any attempt is likely to collide with a minefield of constitutional and legal challenges.
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The emergency economic authority Biden might use to force a ban TikTok has a provision prohibiting it from being used to restrict the flow of information, said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official. That provision was cited by U.S. Judge Carl Nichols when he blocked Trump’s attempts to ban TikTok in 2020. A ban would also almost certainly run into First Amendment challenges as a violation of free speech.
“The law says whatever Biden would do can’t impede the flow of information,” said Reinsch, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The idea was you did not want the United States to restrict the free flow of information.”
Spokespeople for the White House and Treasury declined to comment.
The White House earlier this month endorsed legislation granting the government greater powers over foreign-owned apps, in an apparent acknowledgement of the thorny legal path ahead. When Trump attempted to ban TikTok in 2020, federal judges ruled that the administration had not provided enough evidence to show that the national security risks outweighed the damage a ban would do to Americans’ First Amendment rights.
The hearing exposed no new evidence to support lawmakers’ unsubstantiated claims that the Chinese government has abused TikTok to access American’s user data or promote government propaganda. Yet lawmakers appeared atypically focused in their concerns about the national security threat of the app.
Bipartisan momentum to ban or otherwise restrict TikTok has been growing on Capitol Hill. That White House endorsed legislation, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, is now backed by 20 senators from both parties, said its lead sponsor Sen. Mark Warner on Wednesday.
Warner and the legislation’s co-sponsor, Rep. John Thune, said in a statement that nothing they heard in Chew’s testimony assuaged their concerns that the company could be “required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services.”
Thursday’s combative hearing signaled TikTok has reaped few rewards from its months of efforts to charm Washington, which included a record lobbying blitz, ad campaign and private CEO meetings. With few traditional allies in Washington, the company tapped prominent influencers to serve as its envoys to Capitol Hill. Some sat in the Rayburn House Office hearing room, which was so crowded that staffers were forced to stand for the marathon 5-hour session. Lawmakers who do not sit on the committee, including Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), wandered in to watch, highlighting the broad interest in Congress about Chew’s appearance.
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TikTok spent months familiarizing Washington policymakers, journalists and civil society personnel with “Project Texas,” its unprecedented $1.5 billion plan to cordon off U.S. user data from the reach of the Chinese government in a new subsidiary run by a U.S.-led security. TikTok proposes that this subsidiary would be subject to government scrutiny, suggesting that a U.S. government-approved auditor could monitor its systems.
Chew hinged his Congressional testimony on Project Texas, using much of the five minutes he had for opening remarks to tout the plan. But he immediately faced backlash from lawmakers on the panel, as the committee’s top Democrat told Chew the plan was “simply not acceptable.”
“I still believe that the Beijing, Communist government will still control and influence what you do,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.). Pallone and other lawmakers offered few technical questions about such threats might come about or why the plan was insufficient, instead repeatedly citing the company’s Chinese ownership.
The project’s name is a reference to the Austin headquarters of Oracle, the U.S. company that TikTok said it would contract with to store the U.S. user data. In a sign of lawmakers broad opposition to the plan, Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) told Chew to rename it.
“We don’t want your project,” he said.
This is a developing story and will be updated
Meaghan Tobin, Cristiano Lima, Will Oremus and Drew Harwell contributed to this report.