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TikTok CEO rebuts Chinese spying allegations to skeptical Congress panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – TikTok’s chief executive faced tough questions on Thursday from lawmakers who are convinced the Chinese-owned short video app should be barred for being a potential national security threat to the United States.

CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress capped a week of actions by the Chinese company aimed at convincing Americans and their lawmakers that the app creates economic value and supports free speech.

TikTok, which has more than 150 million Americans users, has faced sharp accusations that its U.S. user data would be shared with the Chinese government and that it fails to adequately protect children from harm.

TikTok has said it has spent more than $1.5 billion on what it calls rigorous data security efforts under the name “Project Texas” that currently has nearly 1,500 full-time employees and is contracted with Oracle to store TikTok’s U.S. user data. It also says it rigorously screens content that could harm children.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, kicked off the hearing by saying, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable – from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more.

“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” and added that the Chinese Communist Party “is able to use (TikTok) as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.”

Chew, who began his testimony speaking about his own Singaporean roots, said, “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” adding that “it is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep (TikTok) free from any manipulation by any government.”

But the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Frank Pallone, argued with that statement, saying, “My problem here is, you’re trying to give the impression that you’re going to move away from Beijing and the Communist Party … but the commitments that we would seek to achieve those goals are not being made today.

“You’re gonna continue to gather data, you’re gonna continue to sell data … and continue to be under the aegis of the Communist Party,” Pallone added.

Some political experts say a TikTok ban could be damaging to Democrats who have used the platform to reach younger voters. Three House Democrats rallied with TikTok creators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in opposition to a ban.

Still, far more U.S. lawmakers want TikTok banned. TikTok last week said President Joe Biden’s administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.

China’s Ministry of Commerce at a briefing on Thursday said that “forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States. If the news is true, China will firmly oppose it.”

“Restricting access to a speech platform that is used by millions of Americans every day would set a dangerous precedent for regulating our digital public sphere more broadly,” said Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute executive director at Columbia University.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner on Wednesday said two additional senators backed his bipartisan legislation with Republican John Thune to give the Biden administration new powers to ban TikTok – raising the total to 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Rami Ayyub and Chris Sanders; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Porter)

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