TikTok’s chief executive failed to give assurances that China doesn’t interfere in the app or that its software can be used to spy on users as he faced tough questions at a hearing in the United States Congress.
Shou Zi Chew was portrayed as evasive by a hostile committee amid fears the Chinese-owned video platform should be barred because of security concerns and because it carries content that can harm children’s mental health.
He told Republican representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers he could not “100 per cent guarantee” that Beijing was not influencing parts of the app.
She also asked if Mr Chew could say with certainty that the app could not be used to spy on journalists or other US citizens. He declined to give that same commitment.
It led her to accuse TikTok of being a “weapon” that could be used against citizens. She also said during opening remarks that letting the app be used by young Americans is “like allowing the Soviet Union to produce Saturday morning cartoons during the Cold War – but much more dangerous”.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values - values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” she said, adding that the Chinese Communist Party “is able to use it as a tool to manipulate America as a whole.”
“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.”
The hearing came as the Houses of Parliament and the Scottish government became the latest institutions to block TikTok from official devices, following last week’s bans by the UK government and the European Commission.
Mr 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. 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 committee seemed unconvinced, with Democratic Representative Tony Cardenas calling Mr Chew a “good dancer with words”.
Democrat Representative Diana DeGette told him the firm’s efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform were not working.
"You gave me only generalized statements that you're investing, that you're concerned, that you're doing work. That's not enough for me. That's not enough for the parents of America,” she said.
Mr Chew told reporters ahead of the hearing that “there are many misconceptions about our company, and I’m very proud to come here and represent them and normal users here in this country.”
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.
“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” asked Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, at a news conference on Wednesday. “Let’s do the right thing here - comprehensive social media reform as it relates to privacy and security.”
TikTok last week said President Joe Biden’s administration had 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.
Additional reporting by agencies