Shou Zi Chew is making the rounds in Washington and talking to members of Congress he must answer to later this month, attempting to allay their concerns about TikTok before his closely-watched inaugural moment in the hot seat.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill ahead of his first-ever testimony before Congress, including several representatives who will be grilling him under oath on March 23.
Chew has sought closed-door meetings with at least half a dozen members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee ahead of its hearing on TikTok’s child safety issues, handling of user data and apparent ties to China, according to two senior Democratic staffers. He has met with several, including Reps. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Scott Peters of California.
“He’s operating from a place where no one has trust in them, and he fully recognizes that,” Trahan said in an interview with Forbes after her Wednesday meeting with Chew in Washington.
“TikTok is in a really unique position right now to take some positive steps on issues that a lot of top American companies have fallen behind, and frankly even regressed, on—and I made clear to Mr. Chew that I hope to see him move to fulfill that potential,” she added.
Trahan said her meeting focused primarily on the dangers that TikTok’s younger users are facing on the platform. At the face-to-face with Schakowsky in February, according to a source present, Chew talked about TikTok’s proposed national security agreement pending with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. TikTok has been negotiating with CFIUS since 2019 on a deal that aims to address national security concerns related to the company’s ownership by Beijing-based ByteDance.
Chew’s meetings with leaders of the congressional committee to whom he’ll soon answer come as TikTok tries to calm critics in the face of record scrutiny of the Chinese-owned video app. Recent Forbes reporting revealing that ByteDance had tracked multiple journalists who cover the company, gaining access to their user data, has raised fears across the U.S. government that such surveillance could be conducted by China on Americans more broadly. And Forbes reporting detailing how TikTok has become a useful tool for child predators, and the pervasiveness of illegal sexual abuse material of minors on the platform, has drawn scrutiny in both chambers of Congress. TikTok’s charm offensive addressing some of these issues has seen the company offering press tours of a new “Transparency and Accountability Center” in Los Angeles and inviting creators to the Hill to speak to policymakers about the benefits of the platform.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lawmakers are intensifying efforts to respond to concerns about TikTok as the Biden administration struggles to strike a CFIUS deal with the company; state attorneys general investigate the app’s alleged harms to minors; and state and federal lawmakers try to restrict or outright shut down the app in the U.S. A week after the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a Republican-led, TikTok-focused bill that would enable President Joe Biden to ban it, a dozen senators introduced broader bipartisan legislation empowering the Department of Commerce to crack down on, or even ban, communications technologies (including TikTok) built by foreign adversaries China, Iran, Russia and North Korea. The White House has endorsed that proposal, the RESTRICT Act, and separately ordered federal agencies to wipe TikTok from government employees’ devices by the end of this month.
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Some lawmakers welcome courtesy meetings with CEOs before they get hauled before Congress to allow for more time to go deeper on certain issues, while others have a blanket policy to not take them. Despite the heightened anxiety around TikTok, a senior Democratic staffer present at one of Chew’s recent lawmaker chats described it as fairly typical relative to past closed-door, pre-hearing sessions with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Trahan, for her part, said her chat with Chew this week was more substantive than past discussions she’s had with the heads of Meta, Instagram and Google. “Mr. Chew didn’t practice the art of deflection; there were frank conversations around the harms that he knows exist… how they’re mitigating risks on the platform, and where they need help from Congress and what they need to do better,” she told Forbes. “It was just a more honest exchange than any I’ve had with the other American CEOs.” The conversation also highlighted “how disappointing it is” that many of the same issues with young users remain widespread on domestic platforms that have had far more time than TikTok to fix them, she said.
Trahan added that tech CEO hearings, like the much-anticipated one with Chew on March 23, can sometimes “turn into political theater.”
“I don’t think that’s helpful… and we haven’t taken up any major legislation that would do anything meaningful in the tech space. We really need to continue to do our jobs in this regard,” she told Forbes. “We’ve got privacy legislation, we have transparency legislation, and if we just allow these hearings to be political theater, we will have done nothing to protect the American people.”