This article is from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew had one mission as he appeared before a House of Representatives committee on Thursday: Convince U.S. lawmakers that TikTok had some separation from its China-based parent company, ByteDance.
Chew was there because worries over China’s ability to access TikTok user data, or influence its content filtering, has U.S. lawmakers, regulators, and the White House considering a ban or forced sale. Sound testimony from Chew could’ve cooled the situation. Instead, he inflamed it.
From the hearing’s first minutes, Chew made it clear that his power at the helm of TikTok is limited. He could not say definitively that TikTok wouldn’t promote messages supporting Chinese hostilities toward Taiwan. He could not commit that TikTok wouldn’t sell its data. He couldn’t even clearly answer questions about who helped him prepare for the hearing.
To those watching, Chew came off as someone struggling to discuss issues above his paygrade. Even as TikTok’s CEO, he didn’t seem like the boss.
“He doesn’t run it,” Geoffrey Cain, a senior fellow at the center-right pro-tech think tank Lincoln Network who briefed the committee last week, told me. “I don’t think he’s fit for these hearings. There’s a reason [TikTok] didn’t roll him out until now.”
With TikTok’s lack of independence from ByteDance now even clearer in lawmakers’ heads, support to ban it in the U.S. will likely grow—as will speculation about what the move will mean for competitors like Facebook, YouTube, and others—but there’s a long road ahead until anything moves forward.
The hearings took place as the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment, or CFIUS, reviews TikTok’s ability to operate in the country following its 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, the merger that made the beloved app what it is today. That review has been underway for years, though. And while Chew’s performance might help the U.S. win more assurances from TikTok around data security, such promises may not mean much anymore.
Congress is already working on backup plans in case it doesn’t get what it wants from CFIUS. A bill called the RESTRICT Act that’s making its way through Congress would empower the Commerce Department to ban technology from China, including TikTok. But given that 150 million Americans use TikTok, an outright ban would be politically tricky (though perhaps not impossible).
Getting ByteDance to divest TikTok is one remaining option. “The solution is the forced sale,” said Cain. But that option is also challenging. Public investors own three-fifths of TikTok, employees own about one-fifth, as do its founders, according to the company. A state-owned Chinese company owns a 1 percent stake, something U.S. representatives brought up several times during Thursday’s hearing. A forced sale would be difficult for a company with that structure to complete. The Chinese government’s intent to fight such a sale would further complicate matters. So it might take an extreme event to push any plan into action.
The fact that this is all happening without any proof that TikTok is actually doing the things it might do is remarkable. It speaks to the flailing nature of the U.S.-China relationship, one that seems to be worsening as China has stood by Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. A similar attack on Taiwan by China would assuredly hasten any action the U.S. is contemplating against TikTok. But until then, the app will most likely continue on, gaining users and influence, marching toward an uncertain future with a figurehead at the helm.