TikTok Executive Won't Say Whether China Can Access American User Data

October 26, 2021

A TikTok executive on Tuesday refused to tell Congress whether the Chinese government could access American users' data.

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, TikTok head of U.S. public policy Michael Beckerman dodged repeated questions from Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) on how the social media company's close ties to Beijing affect American users. According to TikTok's privacy policy, the company can share all user data with its "corporate affiliates." Beckerman refused to say whether those affiliates include Beijing ByteDance Technology, a TikTok sister company whose board includes at least one Chinese Communist Party official.

Although TikTok denies it is controlled by Chinese entities, it has heavily censored content critical of the Chinese Communist Party, including videos that highlighted Hong Kong pro-democracy protests or mentioned the Tiananmen Square massacre. After those censorship standards were published in 2019 by The Guardian, TikTok announced it was changing its policies to allow more free expression. TikTok parent company ByteDance is based in China, which requires companies to hand over any data the government demands for national security reasons.

Beckerman also denied that TikTok had censored content critical of the Chinese government's mass imprisonment of Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in China's Xinjiang province. Beckerman's British counterpart admitted last year, however, that "there were some incidents where content was not allowed on the platform, specifically with regard to the Uighur situation." That executive later recanted.

Cruz said that Beckerman "dodged the questions more than any witness I have seen." Beckerman said the senator was peppering him with "gotcha questions."

Other senators pointed out that TikTok's privacy policy requires users to agree to having their biometric data collected. ByteDance agreed this month to pay $92 million to American users whose biometric data it shared with third parties. TikTok also settled with the Federal Trade Commission for illegally harvesting data from children and was found to be collecting data on Google phones without the permission of users.

Tuesday's hearing was the first time a TikTok executive testified before Congress.