Republicans and Democrats sparred with the CEO of TikTok at a congressional hearing Thursday over data security and content manipulation concerns, as he denied allegations of spying on Americans for the Chinese Communist Party.

Shou Zi Chew, the company’s CEO, appeared before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to address concerns over the company’s ownership and its efforts to protect sensitive user data.

Chew testified that the company is majority owned by global investors and that Beijing has not directed any surveillance of Americans. The United States is TikTok’s most profitable market with more than 150 million users. TikTok is a subsidiary of ByteDance, a Chinese company that has made billions in profits after launching the popular video sharing app worldwide.

The House committee members were notably bipartisan in condemning TikTok as a threat to national and personal security.

“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations,” said Republican chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.

Rodgers and others called for TikTok to be banned by the United States.

Chew’s opening statement argued a ban is unnecessary since the company is working on a project to house U.S. user data on domestic servers owned and maintained by Oracle, an American software company. The project, dubbed “Project Texas,” would route all American user data through American-based TikTok employees who are independent of ByteDance and Beijing monitors, he said.

Democratic Ranking Member Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey responded incredulously to Chew’s data security assurances.

“Let me start out by saying, Mr. Chew that I don’t find what you suggested ... to be acceptable to me,” he said. “I believe the the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”

The Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating allegations that company employees spied on an American journalist.

Forbes reported late last year that ByteDance found that employees accessed the IP addresses of reporters and tracked the physical location of the journalists and their contacts in the app. ByteDance said it fired the employees and that they are cooperating with the investigation.

“TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” Rodgers said in her opening statement. “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values. ... Your platform should be banned.”

Rep. John Curtis’ Section 230 concerns with TikTok

Utah Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, asked Chew if TikTok’s algorithm promoting certain videos over others means the company should no longer be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 largely shields internet “distributers” from legal liability for user-created content as opposed to “publishers” who are held to account.

Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, referenced the death of a 10-year-old girl who died participating in a TikTok viral trend called the “blackout challenge.” But courts ruled TikTok was not liable due to Section 230’s immunity for the platform as a distributor.

It’s assumed a TikTok trend goes viral because the company promotes the content to other users identified by the company algorithm.

Curtis questioned whether TikTok should be considered a publisher since it recommends videos through this proprietary algorithm.

In an interview with the Deseret News immediately following the hearing, Curtis said “the moment (TikTok) manipulates the data using an algorithm they shouldn’t be protected by Section 230.”

He argues the app isn’t a “bulletin board” for people to pick and choose what they see, rather, he said, the company is pushing content and therefore acting like a publisher.

At the House hearing, Curtis and others inquired into TikTok’s preferred content promotion and potential information targeting. He asked Chew if it is possible for the company to write an algorithm to use data collection on him as a lawmaker to persuade him to change his view on a policy issue.

Chew answered by reiterating the company’s commitment to freedom of speech.

Curtis told the Deseret News he is concerned with TikTok’s content manipulation tools. He urged parents to evaluate the possible dangers of the app with “eyes wide open.”

“The smartest people in the world are using the smartest technology in the world to try to change the way you view and perceive things,” Curtis said. “If you’re not cautious, they will do that.”

He agreed with the characterization that TikTok is “digital fentanyl.”

Curtis said he ran out of time, but that he wanted to ask Chew if TikTok would follow the newly passed Utah law requiring social media companies to verify the age of users and to restrict access to underage users without their parents’ consent.

He said he suspects the company will not follow the Beehive State’s law set to go into effect next year.

Other highlights from the hearing

A number of lawmakers questioned Beijing’s control over TikTok through its parent company.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, asked how Chew plans to evade China’s data security law that requires Chinese companies to hand over data requested by the CCP. “Why would the Chinese government sidestep their national law,” she said.

Chew answered, saying,” they have never asked us, we have never provided it.”

“I find that actually preposterous,” Eshoo said.

Various committee members questioned Chew over allegations related to Beijing spying on Americans.

He said “I don’t think spying is the right way to describe it,” referencing ByteDance taking orders from the Chinese Communist Party.

Utah Sen, Mitt Romney and other leaders took to social media to claim this was a veiled admission that spying “is happening.”

Rodgers and Pallone said they plan to reintroduce their bipartisan American Data Privacy and Protection Act. The bill would fix what they consider weaknesses in federal law to protect Americans against damaging data collection practices.

The Biden administration has reportedly told ByteDance and its Chinese owners that they must sell the app or risk an outright ban. Numerous Republicans are also in favor of a nationwide ban.

Curtis said he has questions about a proposed ban since he’s not sure how it could be done constitutionally.

“I would rather see us use common principles that would force the right thing to happen,” he said, “which would be that anytime that (TikTok) made a decision to magnify or diminish speech, that they hold some accountability for those actions.”