TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties

The massively popular social media app TikTok is struggling to assuage lawmakers’ concerns over its ties to the Chinese government and allegations that it is amassing data on U.S. users for Beijing.

The company has sought to beef up its lobbying efforts and grow its U.S. content moderation team, but the criticism of Tiktok only intensified Tuesday when lawmakers ripped the company for declining to send a representative to a hearing on tech companies’ ties with China.

Hawley’s criticism: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, lambasted TikTok, which was represented by an empty chair at the witness table.

“TikTok should answer … to the millions of Americans who use their product with no idea of its risks,” Hawley, one of the Republican Party’s top tech critics, said during his opening remarks.

“They should have been here today,” Hawley continued. “They must … appear under oath to tell the truth about their company, about its ambitions, and what they’re doing with our data.”

TikTok’s response: TikTok said it was unable to provide a “witness who would be able to contribute to a substantive discussion” on such “short notice.”

TikTok was given a week’s notice for the hearing, a source familiar with the invitation told The Hill. The subcommittee was seeking testimony from an executive who could speak to the app’s operations in the U.S.

The context of the hearing: The hearing came at a sensitive moment for the 2-year-old social media app, which has seen its popularity skyrocket over the past six months. TikTok and its Chinese-market counterpart, Douyin, had 625 million monthly active users in August, according to app analytics company App Annie, and the short-form video platform has remained the most-downloaded app on Apple and Google’s stores for months.

That growing popularity has brought a wave of scrutiny from policymakers and regulators, as well as top rival Facebook, which sees TikTok as a serious competitor.

Chinese-owned firm Bytedance bought the U.S. app Musical.ly in 2017 and rebranded the short video platform as TikTok the following year. With more than 110 million downloads in the U.S. last year alone, the platform is trying to build out its American roots to handle the brightening spotlight. TikTok US has grown to encompass hundreds of employees and several offices.

TikTok’s troubles: In the past week alone, though, reports have emerged that a secretive federal panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, has launched a national security review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly. And The Washington Post published a stunning investigation on Tuesday revealing that U.S. TikTok employees had been asked to censor videos that did not comport with the Chinese parent company’s views on acceptable speech.

“The idea that TikTok is not sharing any data, is not taking direction from Beijing, that just does not appear to be true,” Hawley told reporters on Tuesday.