Last Updated on 2023-03-28 , 10:29 am
Recently, TikTok’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was grilled by US Congress members on 23 March in Washington, DC.
(And constantly gotten cut off while trying to respond to their questions.)
And if you’re wondering if it has anything to do with Singapore, it does.
Because the social media giant’s CEO is actually a Singaporean.
Yup, I bet you didn’t know that. And I bet you didn’t want your parents to know that either because now they have another person to compare you to when you fail your exams.
In particular, TikTok’s CEO, Mr Chew Shou Zi, attended a five-hour-long hearing in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
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For the unaware, the US is looking at a possible TikTok ban over concerns such as China having access to their information on TikTok, which is why Mr Chew was brought in to testify.
Here’s everything you need to know about what Mr Chew said in Congress.
He Started by Noting His Singaporean Heritage
At the start of the hearing, 40-year-old Mr Chew began by emphasising that TikTok is a company run by a Singaporean based in Singapore.
He added that TikTok is not bound to the Chinese government.
Mr Chew, who was born and raised in Singapore before completing his undergraduate and postgraduate studies overseas, also talked briefly about how he served his National Service just like any other Singaporean son.
For reference, he was actually an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces during his time in the army.
During the hearing, Mr Chew was asked by several US lawmakers about how TikTok collects users’ data, and especially if TikTok will be able to refrain from collecting users’ health or location data.
In response, he said that TikTok does not collect any health data and that it does not store users’ “precise GPS data” either.
“We are committed to being very transparent with our users about what we collect. I don’t believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry,” he explained.
He also mentioned that the data his company collects is “frequently collected by many other companies” as well.
Apart from that, Mr Chew noted that tech firms in America, such as Facebook, “don’t have a good track record” regarding data privacy.
He particularly emphasised the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the British consulting firm collected the personal information of several million Facebook users for political advertising purposes without users’ consent.
Addressed Concerns Regarding China’s Access to TikTok’s Information in the US
As for whether the Chinese government has access to information that those in the US upload to TikTok, Mr Chew clarified that TikTok’s offices are in America and Singapore.
This is even though both TikTok and Douyin, the Chinese version of the video-sharing platform, were developed by the same company, Bytedance.
Democrat Representative Frank Pallone even called Bytedance a “Beijing communist-based parent company”.
In response, Mr Chew mentioned that the Chinese government does not control or own Bytedance.
Additionally, he mentioned that there is “no evidence” that the Chinese government has ever asked for or accessed the user data of US users.
While one lawmaker said afterwards that Mr Chew’s claim was “actually preposterous”, Mr Chew replied by saying that users’ TikTok data will be stored in the US.
Additionally, he brought up how many of the risks of TikTok that have been mentioned were “hypothetical and theoretical”.
Talked More About Project Texas
Apart from that, Mr Chew elaborated more on Project Texas, which is a scheme worth US$1.5 billion for TikTok data in the US to be ringfenced into a discrete division of the company.
The division will also be co-controlled by Oracle, a company based in Austin, Texas, so that US data will be stored in the US.
“American data is stored on American soil by an American company, overseen by American personnel.
“So the risk would be similar to any government going to an American company, asking for data,” Mr Chew explained.
As for whether engineers in China will be able to access US data, Mr Chew said that they would not be able to after the conclusion of Project Texas.
“Today, there is still some data that we need to delete,” he said.
“It is our commitment to this committee and all our users that we will keep [TikTok] free from any manipulation by any government,” he highlighted.
Had to Restate that He is Singaporean and Not a China National
During the hearing, Republican Dan Crenshaw also alluded to Mr Chew being a Chinese national when he talked about how Bytedance and Bytedance employees living in China are obliged to follow the orders of the Chinese government.
“They are bound to secrecy, and that would include you,” he noted.
And while most of us might still be scratching our heads at his clear lack of geographical knowledge, Mr Chew replied in the simplest yet most effective way.
He said, “Congressman, first, I’m Singaporean.”
Well, ok. Not that effective if you don’t know the difference between China and Singapore, or if you think that Singapore is ruled by China.
TikTok’s Measures for Youths in the US
Besides that, Mr Chew was also questioned on how TikTok can affect youths, especially since some videos promote self-harm or violent behaviours.
In particular, Republican Representative Gus Bilirakis told Mr Chew that his “technology is leading to death”.
When responding to questions about the moderation of such content, Mr Chew revealed in his testimony that such issues were “personal for [him]” as he has two children.
He then brought up how “age-appropriate settings and controls” are available for younger users. TikTok even has a “separate experience” for US users under the age of 13.
In particular, this separate experience includes a “curated viewing experience”. For this, children are shown content that is vetted by Common Sense Network, a third-party expert.
Users under the age of 13 are also not allowed to post videos, write comments or message others on TikTok.
And that’s not all.
Those under 16 have private accounts by default and cannot send direct messages, while live streams on TikTok can only be hosted by those 18 years old or older.
The new default daily time limit for teenagers under 18 is also set at 60 minutes.
With regards to moderation, Mr Chew revealed that TikTok has 40,000 moderators who are responsible for “[tracking] harmful content” on the platform.
An algorithm is also used to alert the platform to any material that is deemed controversial.
“I don’t think I can sit here and say that we are perfect in doing this. We do work very hard,” he reflected.
As for past reports claiming that Mr Chew’s eight-year-old child does not use TikTok, Mr Chew clarified that his child does not use TikTok because the under-13 experience is unavailable in Singapore.
However, he would allow his child to use the under-13 version of the app if they lived in the US.
Even Had to Explain that the App Can Access Home Wi-Fi if User Uses Wi-Fi to Watch TikTok
Yup, you didn’t just read a typo.
Someone actually asked if TikTok accesses one’s home network, and I’m sure even your grandparents have a better understanding of how Wi-Fi works.
And that person was none other than Republican Richard Hudson, who asked, “Mr Chew, does TikTok access the home Wi-Fi network?”
“Only if the user turns on the Wi-Fi. I’m sorry, I may not understand the question,” Mr Chew answered while looking puzzled.
“So if I have the TikTok app on my phone and my phone is on my home Wi-Fi network, does TikTok access that network?” Hudson added.
“It would have to…to access the network to get connections to the internet, if that’s the question,” Chew responded.
Following that, Hudson questioned if TikTok would be able to access other devices that are connected to the same home Wi-Fi network.
Basically, he was asking if you can see what your mother’s doing with her phone while you access TikTok.
I’m sure most of us would be able to answer that question, even if we’re not trained in tech.
To that question, Chew responded with, “Congressman, we do not do anything that is beyond any industry norms. I believe the answer to your question is no. It could be technical. Let me get back to you.”
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And that’s not all.
Buddy Carter, also from the Republican party, also questioned if TikTok uses the camera on users’ phones to decide “whether the content that elicits a pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm”.
Mr Chew replied by saying that the only time when TikTok collects such data is when a user uses filters, such as those that cause sunglasses to pop up on your face.
Otherwise, it does not collect any data that could identify users, such as information related to one’s body, face or voice.
“We need to know where your eyes are,” Chew explained when speaking about the filters.
On the other hand, Carter responded with, “Why do you need to know where the eyes are if you’re not seeing if they are dilated?”
Well, maybe because the filter needs to know where the sunglasses go unless you want sunglasses on your nostrils…?
Regarding the data collected when users use filters, Mr Chew added that such data is stored on users’ own local devices and is deleted after use.
He then re-emphasised that TikTok does not collect any body, face or voice data of its users.
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