WASHINGTON – TikTok is ramping up a public relations campaign to fend off the possibility of a nationwide ban by the Biden administration, and it’s bringing some unconventional advocates to help: online influencers.
Dozens of TikTok creators — some with millions of followers on the video-sharing app — came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby in favor of the platform, one day before lawmakers are slated to grill the company’s chief executive about concerns over user data falling into the hands of the Chinese government.
Shou Zi Chew plans to tell Congress on Thursday that TikTok, which was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, is committed to user safety, data protection and security, and keeping the platform free from Chinese government influence. He will also answer questions from U.S. lawmakers worried about the social media platform's effects on its young user base.
At the heart of TikTok’s trouble is a Chinese national intelligence law that would compel Chinese companies to fork over data to the government for whatever purposes it deems to involve national security. There's also concern Beijing might try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation through the platform.
At a media event coordinated by TikTok on Wednesday, some content creators acknowledged that concerns about data security are legitimate, but pointed to precautions the company is taking, such as a $1.5 billion plan — dubbed Project Texas — to route all U.S. data to domestic servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle.
TikTok has been attempting to sell that proposal to the Biden administration, but skeptics have argued it doesn't go far enough. The administration is reportedly demanding the company's Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a nationwide ban.
Janette Ok, a fashion and beauty influencer on TikTok, said in an interview Wednesday that TikTok invited her to the lobbying event a few weeks ago and paid for her trip to Washington. She’s been able to make a full-time career from her videos, earning income from partnerships with brands looking to capture the eyes of her 1.7 million followers. She said her popularity on TikTok has also allowed her to have other opportunities, like TV and commercial acting roles.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I know a lot about fashion, and I know a lot about people,” Ok said. “And just to be here and share my story is what TikTok has invited me to do.”
Tensions around TikTok have been building on Capitol Hill, reaching a boiling point late last year when a proposal to ban the app off of government phones passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Joe Biden. House Republicans are pushing a bill that would give Biden the power to ban the app.
Other bills have also been introduced — some bipartisan — including a measure that would circumvent the challenges the administration would face in court if it moved forward with sanctions against the social media company.
The effort to target TikTok is part of a larger, tougher approach that Congress has taken in the past several months as China’s relationship with two U.S. adversaries — Russia and Iran — has come into focus. A recent incident with a spy balloon forced even some wary congressional Democrats to join Republicans in opposition, and there is now a strong bipartisan concern in Washington that Beijing would use legal and regulatory power to seize American user data or use the platform to push favorable narratives or misinformation.
But the company has also gotten support from at least three progressive lawmakers who say they oppose a ban on the platform. At a news conference Wednesday with the influencers, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., characterized the national security concerns that have been raised as xenophobic hysteria due to TikTok's Chinese origins. He said if Congress wants to have an “honest” conversation about data collection, it should focus on a national privacy law that targets all social media companies - not just TikTok.
“Usually when there's an issue of national security concern, they hold a bipartisan Congressional briefing on that particular issue,” Bowman said. “We have not received a bipartisan Congressional briefing on the national security risk of TikTok.”
TikTok’s response to the political pressure can be seen all around the nation’s Capitol, with the company putting up ads in area airports and metro stations that include promises of securing users data and privacy and creating a safe platform for its young users. Last year, the company spent more than $5.3 million on dispatching lobbyists to the Hill to make its case, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks lobbying spending.
On Thursday, Chew will be sticking to a familiar script as he urges officials against pursuing an all-out ban on TikTok or for the company to be sold off to new owners. TikTok's efforts to ensure the security of its users' data go “above and beyond” what any of its rivals are doing, according to Chew's prepared remarks released ahead of his appearance before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Chew pushed back against fears that TikTok could become a tool of China's ruling Communist Party because its parent company, ByteDance, was founded in Beijing and also operates from there.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.
He distanced TikTok from its Chinese roots and denied the “inaccurate” belief that TikTok's corporate structure makes it “beholden to the Chinese government." ByteDance has evolved into a privately held “global enterprise,” Chew said, with 60% owned by big institutional investors, 20% owned by the Chinese entrepreneurs who founded it and the rest by employees.
It's “emphatically untrue” that TikTok sends data on its American users to Beijing, he said.
"TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government," Chew said. “Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made.”
Whether those promises will alleviate concern is another matter. TikTok has come under fire in the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific, where a growing number of governments have banned the app from devices used for official business. India, Afghanistan and Indonesia have banned it nationwide.
Chew, a 40-year-old Singaporean who was appointed CEO in 2021, said in a TikTok video this week that the congressional hearing comes at a “pivotal moment” for the company, which now has 150 million American users.
Chew said TikTok’s data security project is the right answer, not a ban or a sale of the company.
“No other social media company, or entertainment platform like TikTok, provides this level of access and transparency,” he said.
The company started deleting the historical protected data of U.S. users from non-Oracle servers this month, Chew said. When that process is completed later this year, all U.S. data will be protected by American law and controlled by a U.S.-led security team.
“Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it,” he said.
He said a TikTok ban would hurt the U.S. economy and small American businesses that use the app to sell their products, while reducing competition in an “increasingly concentrated market.” He added that a sale “would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.”