Senators on Wednesday scrutinized a top TikTok executive over whether the viral video app could leak data to the Chinese government, the first time a company leader has had to answer publicly to lawmakers over recent reports of its ties to Beijing.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee repeatedly asked TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, whether the company would ever provide data about Americans to Chinese officials or remove content at their request. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is based in China.
Many lawmakers and regulators have expressed concern that ByteDance could hand over data about its users, including many young people, to the Chinese government, or that Beijing will use it as a way to spread propaganda.
But Ms. Pappas, who previously worked at YouTube, repeatedly urged the app not to yield to Chinese government demands. She said the company never sent any data to the Chinese Communist Party and that ByteDance’s headquarters were not located in China because it had no headquarters at all.
“We do have employees in China,” she said. “We also have very strict access controls around the type of data they have access to and where that data is stored, here in the United States. And we also said that we would not give that data to China under any circumstances.”
Criticism of TikTok, one of the world’s most popular apps, gained momentum this summer BuzzFeed News reported that TikTok’s US data was still accessible in China earlier this year. Following the articles, numerous 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 investigate the company. Some lawmakers have questioned whether TikTok was honest in its previous conversation with Congress.
“I’m deeply concerned about TikTok and how China can use their influence to access the platform’s data on Americans,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman, the committee’s top Republican, said during the hearing.
The app’s popularity has nevertheless continued to grow. More than a billion people use TikTok, flocking to the feed of seemingly limitless videos for content ranging from makeup tutorials and lip syncing to political diatribes. The reach of the app has given it influence on the culture, turning songs, books and even movies into hits.
In response to the questions, ByteDance has raced to build a lobbying operation that can withstand its critics. According to OpenSecrets, a research group that tracks money in politics, it spent about $5.1 million on federal lobbying last year. It sends congressional staff positive news articles about the app and has aggressively pushed back recent media reports.
Some of that same setback was evident on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Lawmakers also questioned executives from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, about issues such as extremists on their platforms. But many of the most notable conversations were between Mrs. Pappas and the senators.
“In what ways does the government of the People’s Republic of China influence TikTok’s business behavior or policies?” asked Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff.
“No way, shape or form – period,” said Mrs. Pappas.
The app was previously under pressure from former President Donald J. Trump, who tried to persuade ByteDance to sell the app to an American company. That hasn’t happened, and skeptics of the app say President Biden hasn’t done enough to allay their concerns. TikTok has privately negotiated with the Biden administration about steps that could address the government’s concerns.
It has started routing new traffic through servers operated by Oracle, the US cloud computing company, although some data is still backed up on ByteDance servers in Singapore and Virginia. The company says it will eventually delete all data from its own servers.
Ms. Pappas further tried to distance the app from China by saying ByteDance is a “distributed company” with no headquarters.
“ByteDance was founded in China, but we don’t have an official headquarters as a global company,” she said.
Her answers didn’t seem to satisfy many of the legislators. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, repeatedly asked if any TikTok employees were members of the Chinese Communist Party. Arizona Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema said she wanted to educate Ms. Pappas about how the app handles users’ biometrics. And Mr. Portman said he was concerned that Ms. Pappas would not commit to completely cutting off data access for employees in China from TikTok.
“I am concerned that you cannot answer the question other than to say that you will not make a commitment to block this data to China,” he said.