‘So infuriating’: TikTokers are fuming over potential ban

In the aftermath of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s brutal five hour Congressional hearing on Thursday, TikToker and disinformation researcher Abbie Richards summed up what so many creators were thinking: “It’s actually remarkable how much less Congress knows about social media than the average person,” Richards told TechCrunch.

Across TikTok, users mocked congresspeople for misunderstanding how technology works. In one instance, Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked Chew if TikTok connects to a user’s home wi-fi network. Chew responded, bewildered, “Only if the user turns on the wi-fi.”

The ignorant questions weren’t unique to the government’s interrogation of Chew. At a high-profile hearing 2018, the late Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) infamously asked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money if the app is free. Zuckerberg responded, “Senator, we run ads,” failing to stifle a smirk. During a tech hearing two years ago, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) created another notorious viral moment by asking Facebook’s global head of safety if she would “commit to ending finsta.”

As entertaining as these lapses in basic knowledge are, TikTok creators have serious concerns about the future of an app that’s given them a community, and, in some cases, a career.

TikTok creator Vitus “V” Spehar, known as Under the Desk News, has amassed 2.9 million followers by sharing global news in an approachable way. But in this week’s news cycle, they’re front-and-center (literally — they sat right behind the TikTok CEO as he testified).

“I think it’s really concerning that a government is considering removing American citizens from the global conversation on an app as robust as TikTok,” Spehar told TechCrunch. “It’s not just banning the app in the United States, it means disconnecting American citizens from Canada, the UK, Mexico, Iran, Ukraine and all of the frontline reporting you see from those countries, it just shows up on our [For You Page].”

Spehar is part of a group of TikTok creators who travelled to Washington, D.C. this week to advocate on TikTok’s behalf — and against the looming threat of a national ban. They participated in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon hosted by Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a rare dissenting voice in Congress who raised questions about what he described as the “hysteria and panic” surrounding TikTok.

Vitus Spehar, host of the TikTok channel Under The News Desk, hosts a live stream during a news conference outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

Vitus Spehar, host of the TikTok channel Under The News Desk, hosts a live stream during a news conference outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Nathan Howard/Bloomberg)

“Congress made clear that they don’t understand TikTok, they don’t listen to their constituents who are in the community of TikTokers — and are using this TikTok hysteria as a way to pass legislation that gives them superpowers to ban any app they deem ‘unsafe’ in the future,” Spehar said following the hearing.

Tech ethicists and creators alike share this frustration. Dr. Casey Fiesler, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of tech ethics and policy, believes that the national security concerns about the app are overstated.

“The risk seems to be entirely speculative right now and to me, I’m not sure how it is substantially worse than all of the things that are troubling about social media right now that the government has not been focusing on,” Fiesler said. She commands an audience of over 100,000 followers on TikTok, where she explores issues like the nuances of content moderation and other topics that might come up in her graduate courses.

“I don’t think there’s any way to frame this as a general data privacy issue without going after every other tech company,” Fiesler told TechCrunch. “The only thing that makes sense is that it’s literally only about the fact that the company is based in China.”

There is still no evidence that TikTok has shared data with the Chinese government. But reports have shown that employees at TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance have viewed American user data. An investigation last year revealed that engineers in China had open access to TikTok data on U.S. users, undermining the company’s claims to the contrary. Another report, corroborated by ByteDance, found that a small group of engineers inappropriately accessed two U.S. journalists’ TikTok data. They planned to use the location information to determine if the reporters had crossed paths with any ByteDance employees who may have leaked information to the press.

Still, TikTokers point to the distinction between sharing data with a private Chinese company and the Chinese government. For its part, TikTok has tried to appease U.S. officials with a plan called Project Texas, a $1.5 billion undertaking that will move U.S. users’ data to Oracle servers. Project Texas would also create a subsidiary of the company called the TikTok U.S. Data Security Inc., which plans to oversee any aspect of TikTok involving national security.

Spehar said that they favor solutions like Project Texas over U.S. government proposals like the RESTRICT Act, which would give the U.S. new tools for restricting and potentially banning technology exports from foreign adversaries.

“I don’t think we should be looking at things like the RESTRICT Act, or any kind of broad legislation that gives the government the power to say, ‘We’ve decided something is unsafe,'” they told TechCrunch.

Multiple congresspeople asked Chew about how TikTok moderates dangerous trends like “the blackout challenge,” in which children tried to see how long they can hold their breath. Children died from this behavior after it circulated on TikTok, but the game didn’t originate on the platform: As early as 2008, the CDC warned parents that 82 children had died from a trend called “the choking game.” One congressman even referenced “NyQuil chicken” as a dangerous TikTok trend, despite the fact that there is little evidence anyone actually ate chicken soaked in cough medicine and the trend originated years ago on 4chan.

“The moral panic over TikTok challenges is something I’ve debunked extensively, and then they just get parroted by these politicians that don’t understand what a moral panic is,” Richards told TechCrunch. “To utilize misinformation that I’ve written about so much and tried to debunk, and to see it used against TikTok was just so infuriating.”

Richards does acknowledge that TikTok’s best feature is also its worst: Anything can go viral. She believes TikTok’s “bottom-up” information environment does lend itself to misinformation, but that same dynamic also surfaces good content that would never get exposure on a different social network.

Richards is also a vocal critic of TikTok’s content moderation policies, which — like every other social network — are not always applied evenly. During Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) dramatically screened a month-old TikTok video depicting a gun alongside text threatening the leader of the House Committee that orchestrated Chew’s testimony. It’s an obvious violation of TikTok’s content guidelines, but Richards points out that it had very little engagement.

“In the context of TikTok, something having 40 likes is effective moderation,” Richards said. “That means the video isn’t reaching very many people.” She believes that a video like the one the Florida lawmaker highlighted shouldn’t be on the platform at all, but ultimately if it doesn’t reach many users then the potential for harm is limited.

Other creators expressed frustration that congresspeople failed to consider how TikTok has helped Americans, like LGBTQ+ people who found community on the app or small business owners who were able to grow beyond their wildest dreams after going viral.

Trans Latina creator Naomi Hearts, who has 1 million TikTok followers, was invited by TikTok to support the app in D.C. (TikTok compensated this group of creators, which included Spehar, by covering lodging and travel costs). She said that she met other TikTokers on the trip who used the app to gain traction for their small businesses.

She too found an audience on TikTok that she wasn’t able to build elsewhere, after struggling to grow a following on Instagram. But on TikTok, even small accounts have the potential to go viral, a phenomenon that can jumpstart a career when things work out.

“The message of the normal person… for example, me, who was just a plus sized trans woman who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and had a dream — my message was not there,” Naomi Hearts said, referring to Instagram.

Spehar also emphasized the role that TikTok plays in helping people connect well outside the bounds of their everyday surroundings.

“You can find communities that you can’t where you live,” Spehar said. “I think about kids in Northwest Arkansas and in Tennessee — TikTok is literally one of the reasons they’re not taking their lives, because they know they’re not alone.”

Although Richards mostly writes about disinformation on TikTok, she laments the positive sides of the app that could be lost if it gets banned in the U.S.

“Banning TikTok would ultimately harm marginalized communities the most, who are least represented by institutional news and organizations,” Richards said. “And if all of a sudden, that entire infrastructure disappears, they will just suddenly in be the dark.”

‘So infuriating’: TikTokers are fuming over potential ban by Amanda Silberling originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok CEO says company scans public videos to determine users’ ages

Amid questioning about TikTok’s use of biometrics in today’s Congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew offered some insight into how the company vets potentially underage users on its platform. After denying the app collects body, face, or voice data to identify its users — beyond what’s needed for its in-app AR filters to function, that is — the exec was asked how TikTok determines the age of its users.

Chew’s initial answer was expected: the app uses age gating. This refers to the commonly used method that simply asks a user to provide their birthdate in order to determine their age. In TikTok, there are three different experiences for under-13 users, younger teens, and adults 18 and up, and which experience the user receives is based on this age input.

Relying on this method alone is a problem, of course, because kids often lie about their age when signing up for social media apps and websites.

As it turns out, TikTok is doing more than looking at the age that’s entered into a text box.

In the hearing, Chew added that TikTok scans users’ videos to determine their age.

“We have also developed some tools where we look at their public profile, to go through the videos that they post to see whether…,” Chew began, before being interrupted by Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA), who interjected, “that’s creepy. Tell me more about that.”

When Chew was able to continue, he explained “It’s public. So if you post a video, you choose that video to go public — that’s how you get people to see your video. We look at those to see if it matches up the age that you talked about it,” he said.

“Now, this is a real challenge for our industry because privacy versus age assurance is a really big problem,” Chew said.

An interesting follow-up question to the CEO’s response would have been to ask how TikTok was scanning these videos, what specific facial recognition or other technologies it uses, and whether those technologies were built in-house or if it was relying on facial recognition tech built by third parties. Then, of course, whether any of the data that associates the age with the user was being stored permanently, rather than being used to simply boot the user off a TikTok LIVE stream, for example.

Unfortunately for us, Carter didn’t pursue this line of questioning.

Instead, he blasted the CEO for dismissing age verification as an industry-wide issue.

“We’re talking about children dying!,” he exclaimed, referencing the dangerous challenges apps like TikTok and others have allowed to viral, like the blackout challenge. (That challenge resulted in TikTok removing some half a million accounts in Italy to block underage users from its platform, at the request of the local regulator, in fact.)

The reality is that age verification is an industry-wide concern and the lack of U.S. laws around children’s use of social media leaves companies like TikTok and others to develop their own processes.

For example, Instagram began verifying users’ ages just last year by offering users a choice of three options. Users could either upload an ID, record a video selfie or ask mutual friends to verify their age on their behalf. The latter is relatively easy to bypass if you have good friends willing to lie for you.

Earlier this month, Instagram rolled out its age verification tools in Canada and Mexico, in addition to the existing support in the U.S. Brazil, and Japan. The company had earlier said it had partnered with London-based digital identity startup Yoti for the video selfie part of the age verification process.

Instagram has also previously explained at a high level how it identifies which users it suspects to be underage.

Beyond investigating flagged accounts, the company claims it developed AI technology that it uses to infer someone’s age. Its model has an understanding of how people in the same age group tend to interact with content. And another one of the ways it may identify an underage user who’s lying about their age is by scanning the comments on “Happy Birthday” posts where a user’s age may be referenced. Plus, Instagram said it may try to match a user’s age on Facebook with their stated age on Instagram, along with the use of “many other signals” which it doesn’t disclose.

TikTok’s technique has been less clear. The company does document how to verify your age if it identified you incorrectly — for example, if you were kicked off LIVE for looking too young. (Last fall TikTok announced it was raising the age requirement for using its in-app livestreaming service, TikTok LIVE to 18, up from 16).

Last year, Bloomberg reported that TikTok met with two providers of facial age-estimation software in 2021. Both companies offered software that could tell the difference between children and adults, but a TikTok exec nixed the deals over fears that facial scanning like this would lead to fears that China was spying on child users, the report had said.

Today, the U.S. had the TikTok CEO in the hot seat, poised to explain the actual techniques TikTok uses for age determination, and all we got were screaming, blustering politicians putting on a show instead of getting real answers.

TikTok CEO says company scans public videos to determine users’ ages by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok questioned on ineffective teen time limits in Congressional hearing

In hopes of heading off concerns over the addictiveness of its app, TikTok earlier this month rolled out new screen time controls that limited minors under the age of 18 to 60-minute daily screen time limits. But in a Congressional hearing today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, TikTik CEO Shou Zi Chew was questioned on the new tool’s inefficiency, forcing the exec to admit that the company didn’t have data on how many teens were continuing to watch beyond the default limits.

The line of questioning is notable because TikTok’s algorithm and vertical video-based feed are among the most addictive products to emerge from the broader tech industry in recent years. Each swipe on the app’s screen delivers a new and interesting video personalized to the user’s interests, leading users to waste an inordinate amount of time on TikTok compared with older social media services.

In fact, a recent study found that TikTok was now even crushing YouTube in terms of kids’ and teens’ app usage in markets around the world thanks, in part, to its addictive feed.

The format has become so popular, it’s also since been adopted by nearly all other major U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap. So an examination of any sort of addiction mitigation techniques is certainly warranted.

That said, the time limit TikTok designed for teens is really more for show — it doesn’t actually prevent younger users from watching TikTok.

A hard limit on TikTok viewing is still up to the teen’s parents, who would have to use the app’s included parental controls to set screen time and session limits. Otherwise, they could turn to other parental controls bundled with the mobile OS from Apple or Google or those from third parties.

In the hearing, Chew touted how TikTok was the first to launch a 60-minute watch limit for teen users, and had other teen protections, like disabled direct messaging for users under 16. He noted also that teen content couldn’t go viral on the app’s For You page, if the creator was under 18.

However, when pushed on the teen time limit’s real-world impact, the exec didn’t have any substantial data to share.

“My understanding is that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” suggested Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.). “I mean, let’s face it, our teens are smarter than we are by half and they know how to use technology and they can get around these limits if they want to,” he said.

Sarbanes is correct. There’s really nothing to bypassing the feature — it only takes a tap of a button before you’re returned back to the feed when your time limit is up. A more effective mitigation technique would actually force a teen user to take a break from the app entirely. This could better disrupt the dopamine-fueled addiction cycle by requiring a short time-out where they’d be forced to find something else to do than continue to scroll more videos.

When asked if TikTok was measuring how many teens were still exceeding the 60-minute time limit after the new feature was added, Chew didn’t know and didn’t share any sort of guess, either. Instead, he avoided a direct answer.

“We understand those concerns,” the TikTok CEO responded. “Our intention is to have the teens and their parents have these conversations about what is the appropriate amount of time for social media,” he added, noting that the app offered a Family Pairing feature that does enforce a real screen time limit.

In other words, TikTok doesn’t think real teen protections are up for it to decide. To be fair, neither do any U.S.-based social media companies. They want parents to shoulder the responsibility.

This answer, however, showcases how a lack of U.S. regulation over these platforms is allowing the cycle of app addiction to continue. If lawmakers won’t create rules to protect kids from algorithms that tap into human psychology to keep them scrolling, then it really will be up to parents to figure step in. And many do not know or understand how parental controls work.

Sarbanes asked TikTok to follow up by providing the Congressional committee with research on how the time limits were implemented, how they’re being bypassed, and the measures TikTok is taking to address these sorts of issues.

In a further line of questioning, this time from Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), TikTok’s addictive nature of the app and the dangerous stunts and challenges it showcased were suggested to be “psychological warfare…to deliberately influence U.S. children.” While that may be a bit of a leap, it’s worth noting that when Carter asked if the Chinese version of TikTok (Douyin) had the same “challenges” as TikTok Chew also admitted he didn’t know.

“This is an industry challenge for all of us,” he said.

The TikTok CEO later reiterated how kids’ use of its app is ultimately up to parents. When responding to questions about the appropriate age for TikTok use, he noted there were three different experiences aimed at different age groups — one for under-13 year-olds, another for younger teens, and another for adults. As an interesting side note, where Chew is based in Singapore, there’s no under-13 experience available, meaning his own kids are not on TikTok. 

“Our approach is to give differentiated experiences for different age groups — and that the parents have these conversations with their children to decide what’s best for their family,” Chew said.

TikTok questioned on ineffective teen time limits in Congressional hearing by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

In Congressional hearing, TikTok commits to deleting U.S. user data from its servers ‘this year’

In his testimony before the U.S. Congress this morning, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the company plans to delete all U.S. user data from company servers by year-end. The commitment was shared as part of Chew’s opening statements, which detailed the company’s initiative known as Project Texas. The plan involves the relocation of U.S. user data to Oracle servers based in the U.S. where the data would then be overseen by American personnel.

The plan is one part of TikTok’s larger agenda to stop the popular video entertainment app from being banned by the U.S. government over national security concerns. The company also aims to convince Congress that it has a number of protections included in its app designed to keep younger users safe, and is heavily relied on by both U.S.-based creators and small businesses to generate income, among other things.

With Project Texas, however, TikTok’s mission is focused on what Chew referred to as a “firewall” that would seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access — meaning, of course, the CCP.  In a bit of good branding, the name “Texas” refers to where Oracle is headquartered.

TikTok’s general plans for Project Texas were already known — the company last June wrote to Republican senators to assure them how it was working on an initiative to bolster data security for U.S.-based users. The letter was written in response to earlier Congressional outreach that had followed a report from BuzzFeed News that claimed some China-based employees had access to TikTok U.S. user data. In TikTok’s response, it explained how it intended to relocate and safeguard the data. However, the letter did not then commit to a timeframe for the data’s relocation.

In the testimony this morning, Chew gave TikTok a deadline for that move, noting the company expected to delete data from its own servers this year.

“Today, U.S. TikTok data is stored by default in Oracle’s service,” Chew said. “Only vetted personnel operating in a new company called TikTok U.S. Data Security can control access to this data. Now additionally, we have plans for this company to report to an independent American board with strong security credentials. Now there’s still some work to do,” he continued. “We have legacy U.S. data sitting in our servers in Virginia and in Singapore. We’re deleting those we expect that to be complete this year,” he said.

“When that is done, all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law,” Chew added.

The exec was later questioned on other aspects of its data security, including whether or not it would commit to not selling U.S. user data to anyone. Here, Chew couldn’t provide a straightforward answer. After initially responding that TikTok wouldn’t sell to data brokers, he said he would have “get back to you” on the details around whether or not it sold data to anyone, after being pushed to answer more directly.

In addition, the CEO couldn’t clarify if Project Texas would completely separate TikTok from its Chinese parent, as there could be technologies that were interconnected.

Plus, when questioned about whether or not any employees in China would have access to U.S. data, the exec responded, “After Project Texas,…the answer is no” — an answer that begs the question as to how many Chinese employees could access the data now.

The exec was also questioned as to whether or not Chinese ByteDance employees were subject to Chinese law, including the 2017 National Intelligence Law which requires any organization or citizen to assist and cooperate with state intelligence work. Chew sidestepped answering at first by noting that, “like many companies, including many American companies, we rely on a global workforce including engineers in China.”

Asked again to respond just yes or no, he then said “in the past, yes, but we are building Project Texas and we’re committed to firewalling off all protected data.”

In Congressional hearing, TikTok commits to deleting U.S. user data from its servers ‘this year’ by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok’s hearing in Congress is a reminder of Chinese startups’ identity crisis

TikTok, which now boasts more than 150 million monthly active users in the U.S., is set to testify before Congress on Thursday morning. Over in China, home to TikTok’s parent ByteDance, many startup founders and investors are preparing to stay up and watch the app’s CEO Shou Zi Chew take thorny questions over China’s potential influence on the short video giant.

To an extent, what happens to TikTok foreshadows the future of any Chinese tech company that will make it big in the U.S. As tensions between the two superpowers rise, Chinese startups expanding in the West find themselves increasingly caught in between. At home, they face heightened restrictions over how their data flows out of China; in the U.S., their Chinese root is a constant source of national security concerns.

No other Chinese internet service is anywhere near TikTok’s global influence today, but even early-stage startups are thinking of ways to play down their Chinese identity to avoid being targeted by Western lawmakers down the road.

The most basic steps are to move their parent firm out of China to a more “neutral” country, such as Singapore, and store user data in the jurisdiction where they operate. The more resourceful and determined founders are going out of their way to emigrate abroad, build a substantial team on the ground and raise from American investors to show that their interests align with the citizens of their target market.

ByteDance has tried some of these tactics to localize TikTok’s operations, but its efforts didn’t seem to do much to placate U.S. regulators so long as the app is still owned by a Chinese firm. Watching TikTok’s troubles start in the Trump administration and continue into the Biden era, venture capital firms that bet on China are getting angsty. Some of them are now advising their portfolio founders on how to obscure their Chinese origin and even seek a foreign passport.

Whether TikTok gets banned or not, its ordeal in the U.S. already sounds an alarm to Chinese founders with Western ambitions — start thinking about the identity of your company from day one and be prepared for an increasingly hostile geopolitical environment.

(I have written about this topic more extensively in the past, including why Chinese founders are seeking overseas growth, what sort of challenges they encounter abroad, and why China’s web3 entrepreneurs are having a particularly difficult time.)

TikTok’s hearing in Congress is a reminder of Chinese startups’ identity crisis by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok CEO testifies before Congress

As the Biden administration escalates its threats against TikTok, the company’s chief executive made his first appearance before Congress on Thursday. Given the U.S. government’s aggressive recent posture, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was destined for a harsh turn under the glare of the government’s big, bright lights and that’s very much what played out across the hearing’s sprawling five hours.

In opening statements, Chew offered reassurances that the company would safeguard the safety of minors, bolster its privacy and security practices and ward off any possibility of “unauthorized foreign access” to U.S. user data.

“… I understand that there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about U.S. users with the Chinese government,” Chew said. “This is emphatically untrue.”

Chew asserted that TikTok has never shared data on U.S. users with the Chinese government nor has it ever received a request to do so. If China did request access to data on Americans, Chew argued that the company would not comply.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said.

As the hearing unfolded, lawmakers from both political parties pressed Chew for answers about the company’s relationship with China, its failure to moderate disturbing content and its plans to build trust in the U.S., its biggest market.

Facing an onslaught of critical questions, TikTok tore a page out of the classic tech hearing playbook drafted by companies like Meta and Google in recent years. While Chew came off as comfortable and friendly — more than some U.S. tech executives can say — he overstated some of the company’s achievements and side-stepped substantive answers on tough issues time and time again.

A number of representatives focused on TikTok’s impact on young users. After Chew touted the app’s 60 minute watch limit for teens, Rep. John Sarbanes brought the company’s claims about its protections against social media addiction back to reality.

“My understanding is that teens can pretty easily bypass the notification to continue using the app if they want to,” Sarbanes said. “I mean, let’s face it, our teens are smarter than we are by half and they know how to use technology and they can get around these limits if they want to.”

Early in his testimony, Chew cited a report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab, claiming that the organization definitively found no connection between the Chinese government and TikTok data. Citizen Lab’s director responded in real time on Twitter, criticizing the characterization.

“Our analysis was explicit about having no visibility into what happened to user data once it was collected and transmitted back to TikTok’s servers,” he wrote. “Although we had no way to determine whether or not it had happened, we even speculated about possible mechanisms through which the Chinese government might use unconventional techniques to obtain TikTok user data via pressure on ByteDance.”

In another exchange with Florida Rep. Neal Dunn, Chew objected to using the term “spying” to describe an incident in which ByteDance employees surveilled U.S. citizens through TikTok in order to identify the source of leaked information.

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, Chew took to the app to announce that TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the U.S., a sizable jump up from its last reported numbers. The milestone cuts both ways, underlining concerns about TikTok’s massive influence among Americans and serving as a threat that a U.S. ban would outrage users and creators alike. At least one group of creators is staging a protest of the proposed ban in Washington, D.C. this week, drawing attention to the negative impact it would have on their businesses.


Our CEO, Shou Chew, shares a special message on behalf of the entire TikTok team to thank our community of 150 million Americans ahead of his congressional hearing later this week.

♬ original sound – TikTok

“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said. “What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online.”

The committee pressed Chew over measures that TikTok is taking to protect kids on the app, noting that the hearing is the latest effort to make tech companies accountable for their negative impacts on society. Lawmakers also emphasized worries TikTok parent company ByteDance is based in China with Chinese ownership that it could be leveraged by the Chinese government to further state interests.

While there’s no evidence that China is harvesting data on Americans or intentionally shaping political behavior through its algorithms, there is reason to be concerned that the company’s privacy practices aren’t airtight.

Last year an internal investigation at the company confirmed reporting that employees at its Beijing headquarters intended to track U.S. journalists via their TikTok activity in an effort to uncover the source of internal leaks. That incident apparently prompted probes from multiple federal agencies, which were first reported last week. The Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is working with the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy, putting additional pressure on the company’s imperiled U.S. business.

TikTok has long pushed back over privacy concerns, arguing that TikTok’s American operations are walled off from its Beijing-based leadership — and from China itself. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the U.S. government is currently seeking to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, threatening a national ban on the app if the company doesn’t comply.

TikTok responded by pointing to its recent campaign to self-regulate, an undertaking known as Project Texas. The campaign is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the U.S. that seeks to portray the company’s U.S. operations as transparent and comes with about $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate re-organization. The idea is that TikTok itself can erect a firewall between the company’s American business and its Chinese ownership, potentially placating the U.S. government in the process.

The U.S. doesn’t look likely to back down, but it’s far from clear it’s in a position to follow through on recent threats. The White House attempted a similar maneuver during the Trump White House, but its efforts fell apart before being picked back up by the Biden administration in an unusual show of policy continuity between the two. Former President Trump’s threats against TikTok eventually culminated in a plan to force ByteDance to sell its U.S. operations to Oracle in late 2020. At the time, TikTok also rejected an acquisition offer from Microsoft, but in time the deal with Oracle fizzled too.

Oracle never bought the company, but it’s still in the picture. TikTok later partnered with Oracle to shift U.S. data onto U.S.-based servers with the company and to run audits of its algorithms and content moderation systems — an odd move and an odd partner to do it with, given Oracle co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison’s participation in the campaign to undermine the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Given the stakes for the company and its users — and politicians’ penchant for rousing anti-China sentiment — Thursday’s TikTok was explosive in form even when it wasn’t in function. Between lawmakers frequently opting to grandstand instead of allowing their sole witness to speak and others that failed to understand the basic features of the app in question, Thursday’s hearing offered more bark than bite.

TikTok CEO testifies before Congress by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok CEO takes to the app to announce company’s more than 150M active users in the U.S.

Ahead of his testimony before Congress on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew announced in a TikTok video that the video app now has more than 150 million users in the US — up from 100 million in 2020. He also mentioned that TikTok hosts to more than 5 million businesses in the country.

Amid talks of banning the ByteDance-owned app over national security concerns as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise, Chew touted these numbers to demonstrate how the app is an important part of U.S. culture.

“That’s almost half of the U.S. coming to TikTok to connect, to share to learn or just have some fun,” he said in the video.

The exec additionally used the video to ask TikTok users to come to the app’s defense by letting their elected representatives know what they loved about the app. The company could use these comments as a testimony to prove TikTok’s popularity.

“I’ll be testifying before Congress later this week to share all that we’re doing to protect Americans using the app,” Chew said.


Our CEO, Shou Chew, shares a special message on behalf of the entire TikTok team to thank our community of 150 million Americans ahead of his congressional hearing later this week.

♬ original sound – TikTok


The House Energy and Commerce Committee will grill the app’s CEO about the app’s privacy practices and how it protects children.

“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China. What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online. We need to know what actions the company is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms,” the Committee said in a press release issued last week.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee voted in favor of a bill that could give Biden government power to ban the app. Meanwhile, reports indicate that the authorities are putting pressure on ByteDance to sell TikTok or face an embargo as its links with China have them concerned about user data being passed on to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Recently, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice also began investigations into TikTok after some employees allegedly used the app to spy on U.S. journalists.

TikTok has spent nearly $1.5 billion on a charm offensive with steps that included an independent audit by Oracle and invitations to press and regulators to visit its newly constructed Transparency Center in L.A. The company also initiated “Project Texas,” which aims to address concerns from lawmakers and show that the U.S. business is transparent and separate from China-based operations.

In the past few weeks, the U.K., the EU, Canada, and New Zealand have all banned TikTok on different kinds of official government devices, similar to bans in the U.S.

Apart from this, TikTok announced an overhaul of its community guidelines today with new policies around the use of AI in content and climate misinformation. The new rules state that accounts must clearly disclose the use of AI in videos.


TikTok CEO takes to the app to announce company’s more than 150M active users in the U.S. by Ivan Mehta originally published on TechCrunch

New wave of VC funds show it’s time to rethink how many LPs is ‘too many’

Last month, Chicago-based Chalo Ventures surpassed 100 LPs. For founder and general partner Haris Khurshid, it was a notable milestone toward the firm’s goal of hitting 1,000 LPs, a number that would likely make most legacy investors wince.

But while there are a number of potential annoyances or issues that come with having a larger LP base — more people means more opinions, after all — it seems that newer funds are raising cash from more LPs than ever before. But not always by choice.

New wave of VC funds show it’s time to rethink how many LPs is ‘too many’ by Rebecca Szkutak originally published on TechCrunch

Lawyers see crypto regulation coming in 2023 because industry needs to rebuild trust

Despite an uneven year in the crypto markets, many market participants are unperturbed about the long-term health of the sector and say that legal frameworks in 2023 could restore trust in the industry. 

“Crypto will recover,” Katherine Dowling, general counsel member at Bitwise Asset Management, said to TechCrunch. “This is not the death of crypto.”

Given the belief by many that crypto remains here to stay, it’s worth looking ahead. Crypto denizens certainly are — after the FTX collapse, questions circulated concerning crypto’s future and what regulators would do next.

“There’s no impetus for regulators to reduce their level of enforcement activity and recent events are likely to embolden them.” Mayer Brown's Joe Castelluccio

But disappointment in what FTX’s implosion represents is very hard to overstate, Yesha Yadav, professor of law and director of diversity, equity and community at Vanderbilt University, told TechCrunch. “The level of disillusionment and disappointment and sense of feeling deceived by FTX is so deep because it was seen as one of the most compliance-friendly institutions in the crypto economy and one that would be leading the regulatory efforts.”

Now, obviously, FTX is the “poster child for everything that could go wrong,” Yadav said. Its downfall has regulators going back to the drawing board. “They might have to do something different, more far-reaching and strict in response to what happened.”

But, what can we expect from regulators in 2023?

Regulators will finalize some of the proposals they introduced, Alma Angotti, partner and global legislative and regulatory risk leader at Guidehouse, said to TechCrunch. “I think there is a realization that the industry is too big to continue to ‘wait and see.’”

Lawyers see crypto regulation coming in 2023 because industry needs to rebuild trust by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter dodge questions on social media and national security

Executives from four of the biggest social media companies testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday, defending their platforms and their respective safety, privacy and moderation failures in recent years.

Congress managed to drag in a relatively fresh set of product-focused executives this time around, including TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas, who testified for the first time before lawmakers, and longtime Meta executive Chris Cox. The hearing was convened to explore social media’s impact on national security broadly and touched on topics ranging from domestic extremism and misinformation to CSAM and China.

Committee Chair Sen. Gary Peters pressed each company to disclose the number of employees they have working full-time on trust and safety and each company in turn refused to answer — even though they received the question prior to the hearing. Twitter General Manager of Consumer and Revenue Jay Sullivan chipped in the only numerical response, noting that the company has 2,200 people working on trust and safety “across Twitter,” though it wasn’t clear if those employees also did other kinds of work.

It’s no secret that social media moderation is patchy, reactive and uneven, largely because these companies refuse to invest more deeply in the teams that protect people on their platforms. “We’ve been trying to get this information for a long time,” Peters said. “This is why we get so frustrated.”

Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) steered the content moderation conversation in another important direction, questioning Meta Chief Product Officer Chris Cox about the safety efforts outside of the English language.

“[In] your testimony you state that you have over 40,000 people working on trust and safety issues. How many of those people focus on non English language content and how many of them focus on non U.S. users?” Padilla asked.

Cox didn’t provide an answer, nor did the three other companies when asked the same question. Though the executives pointed to the total number of workers who touch trust and safety, none made the meaningful distinction between external contract content moderators and employees working full-time on those issues.

Whistleblowers and industry have repeatedly raised alarms about inadequate content moderation in other languages, an issue that gets inadequate attention due to a bias toward English language concerns, both at the companies themselves and at U.S.-focused media outlets.

In a different hearing yesterday, Twitter’s former security lead turned whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko noted that half of the content flagged for review on the platform is in a language the company doesn’t support. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has also repeatedly called attention to the same issue, observing that the company devotes 87% of its misinformation spending to English language moderation even though only 9% of the platform’s users speak English.

In another eyebrow-raising exchange, Twitter’s Jay Sullivan declined to specifically deny accusations that the company “willfully misrepresented” information given to the FTC. “I can tell you, Twitter disputes the allegations,” Sullivan said, referring to testimony from the Twitter whistleblower on Tuesday.

TikTok and China

In her first appearance before Congress with TikTok, Pappas immediately fell into step with her peers, evading straightforward questions, offering partial answers and even refusing at one point to admit TikTok’s well-documented connections to China. When Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) pressed Pappas on where TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance is based, she dodged the question awkwardly by claiming the company is distributed and doesn’t have a headquarters at all. Pappas, under oath, also categorically denied explosive reports from BuzzFeed that China-based ByteDance employees regularly accessed private data on U.S. TikTok users, even though that reporting is drawn from leaked audio.

The TikTok executive also declined to agree to Portman’s request that the company cut off the flow of user data to any employees based in China, including ByteDance employees. “Under no circumstances would we give user data to the Chinese government,” Pappas insisted, though she did not weigh in on behalf of TikTok’s parent company.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) also drilled into TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government. “Are there members of the Chinese Communist Party employed by TikTok or ByteDance, or no?” Hawley asked.

Pappas avoided answering directly but eventually landed on the answer that no one making “strategic decisions” at the company has ties to the Chinese government.

All told this was another round of Congress getting stonewalled by top decision makers from some of the world’s largest, most powerful and culturally influential companies. For his part as chair, Peters was realistic about the situation, noting that short of regulatory changes to the incentives that drive social media companies, nothing is going to change — including in these sessions.

“I’ll be honest, I’m frustrated that… all of you [who] have a prominent seat at the table when these business decisions are made were not more prepared to speak to specifics about your product development process, even when you are specifically asked if you would bring specific numbers to us today,” Peters said, concluding the hearing. “Your companies continue to avoid sharing some really very important information with us.”

Meta, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter dodge questions on social media and national security by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch