Senators grilled a top TikTok executive on Wednesday about whether the viral video app could leak data to the Chinese government, the first time a leader at the company has had to answer to lawmakers in public about recent reports on its ties to Beijing.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee repeatedly asked TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, about whether the company would ever provide data about Americans to Chinese officials or delete content at their request. TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is based in China.
Many lawmakers and regulators have expressed concern that ByteDance could hand over data about its users, many of whom are young people, to the Chinese government, or that Beijing will use it as a way to spread propaganda.
But Ms. Pappas, who previously worked at YouTube, repeatedly insisted that the app would not cave to demands from the Chinese government. She said that the company had never sent data to the Chinese Communist Party, and that ByteDance was not headquartered in China because it did not have any headquarters at all.
“We do have employees based in China,” she said. “We also have very strict access controls around the type of data that they can access and where that data is stored, which is here in the United States. And we’ve also said under no circumstances would we give that data to China.”
The criticism of TikTok, one of the world’s most popular apps, gained momentum this summer after BuzzFeed News reported that TikTok’s American data was still accessible in China earlier this year. After the articles, numerous lawmakers and regulators demanded answers from TikTok and its chief executive, Shou Zi Chew. Some also asked Google and Apple to ban downloads of the app from their digital storefronts and called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company. Some lawmakers have questioned whether TikTok was truthful in its previous conversation with Congress.
“I am highly concerned about TikTok and how China may be leveraging their influence to access the platform’s data on Americans,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the committee’s top Republican, said at the hearing.
The app’s popularity has nonetheless continued to grow. More than a billion people use TikTok, flocking to its feed of seemingly unlimited videos for content ranging from makeup tutorials and lip-syncing to political rants. The app’s reach has given it influence over culture, helping to turn songs, books and even movies into hits.
In response to the questions, ByteDance has raced to build a lobbying operation that can counter its critics. It spent roughly $5.1 million on federal lobbying last year, according to OpenSecrets, a research group that tracks money in politics. It sends congressional staffs positive news articles about the app, and has pushed back aggressively on the recent media reports.
Some of that same pushback was apparent on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Lawmakers also questioned executives from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, about issues including extremists on their platforms. But many of the most pointed exchanges were between Ms. Pappas and the senators.
“In what ways does the government of the People’s Republic of China, if at all, exercise influence over TikTok’s corporate behavior or corporate policies?” asked Senator Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia.
“In no way, shape or form — period,” Ms. Pappas said.
The app previously faced pressure from former President Donald J. Trump, who tried to get ByteDance to sell the app to an American company. That didn’t come to pass, and skeptics of the app say President Biden has not done enough to address their concerns. TikTok has been negotiating in private with the Biden administration over steps that could mitigate the government’s concerns.
It has begun to route new traffic through servers controlled by Oracle, the American cloud computing company, although some data is still backed up on ByteDance servers in Singapore and Virginia. The company says it will eventually delete all the data from its own servers.
Ms. Pappas tried to distance the app from China further by saying ByteDance is a “distributed company” without headquarters.
“ByteDance is founded in China, but we do not have an official headquarters as a global company,” she said.
Her answers did not seem to satisfy many of the lawmakers. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, repeatedly asked if any TikTok employees were members of the Chinese Communist Party. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said she wanted to follow up with Ms. Pappas about how the app handle users’ biometric data. And Mr. Portman said he was worried that Ms. Pappas would not commit to TikTok’s totally cutting off data access for employees in China.
“I’m concerned that you’re not able to answer the question, except to say that you will not make the commitment to cutting off this data to China,” he said.