(WASHINGTON) — A high-stakes standoff between the U.S. government and social media app TikTok over a potential ban is set for a reckoning on Thursday when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before a committee of House lawmakers.
The China-based app, which counts more than 150 million U.S. users each month, has faced growing scrutiny from government officials over fears that user data could fall into the possession of the Chinese government and the app could be weaponized by China to spread misinformation.
The prospect of a nationwide TikTok ban has escalated from a theoretical possibility to a serious policy consideration, drawing growing support in Washington, D.C.
The Biden administration last week demanded that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, sell its stake in the app or risk getting banned, the company and a U.S. official previously told ABC News.
In the high-profile appearance on Capitol Hill, Chew will directly confront the possibility of a ban, outlining how such a measure would ultimately harm the U.S. economy, according to his prepared remarks posted on the committee’s website.
He also aims to dispel concerns among U.S. officials that ByteDance could be compelled to share information with the Chinese government or to comply with directives to manipulate U.S. users, the prepared remarks say.
Chew plans to tout Project Texas, an ongoing effort that he says keeps all data on U.S. users within the country through a partnership with Austin, Texas-based cloud computing company Oracle.
“Bans are only appropriate when there are no alternatives. But we do have an alternative,” Chew will say.
“We do not believe that a ban that hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy, silences the voices of over 150 million Americans, and reduces competition in an increasingly concentrated market is the solution to a solvable problem,” he will say, according to the prepared remarks.
The Chinese government has not requested U.S. user data from TikTok, nor would the company fulfill such a request if it were made, Chew will say.
There is no evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, but recent news stories have called into question the security of U.S. user data.
TikTok engineers based in China gained access to intimate information on U.S. users, BuzzFeed reported in June.
Months later, in December, a Forbes report found that Bytedance tracked the location of multiple U.S.-based Forbes journalists as part of an effort to identify the source of company leaks.
Before the House, Chew plans to denounce the “misguided attempt” to unearth the leakers, saying the employees involved are no longer at the company.
“Another important part of being a responsible steward of user data is owning up to our mistakes and making changes to address them,” his prepared remarks say. “I condemn this misconduct in the strongest possible terms.”
Chew will likely encounter stiff opposition from some members of the Republican-led committee, which oversees energy and commerce. A number of Republican members of Congress have backed a ban of the app.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, a separate body, voted earlier this month to approve a bill that would give Biden the authority to ban TikTok.
The Biden administration this month endorsed a different bipartisan bill, which does not specifically target TikTok but empowers the federal government to ban electronics or software with foreign ties, such as TikTok.
A potential TikTok ban raises concerns about limits placed on free speech and would likely face a legal challenge, some experts and civil liberties advocates previously told ABC News.
In a letter to federal lawmakers last month, the American Civil Liberties Union voiced opposition to a full ban of TikTok.
“Congress must not censor entire platforms and strip Americans of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU.
In testimony on Wednesday, Chew is expected to mention the importance of free expression but he will sustain an emphasis on the safety of user data and the value of TikTok for the U.S. economy, according to his prepared remarks.
TikTok hosts accounts for 5,000 U.S.-based businesses and employs 7,000 workers across the country, Chew said in a video posted on Tuesday.
“Although some people may still think of TikTok as a dancing app for teenagers, the reality is that our platform and our community have become so much more for so many,” Chew’s prepared remarks say.
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