TikTok made a rare appearance before Congress on Wednesday afternoon. Specifically, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas testified on a panel alongside high-ranking executives from YouTube, Meta and Twitter. The group appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to answer questions about how their respective platforms could be used to promote extremism and civil unrest.
In her opening remarks, Pappas assured the committee that TikTok had adequate data security measures in place to protect U.S. users. Even then, Pappas noted that some China-based employees could access U.S. user data “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team.”
Pappas was repeatedly asked about the BuzzFeed report that found engineers in China had access to nonpublic U.S. user data. She called the reports “not found” and specifically denied the claim that a master administrator account gave at least one Beijing engineer access to virtually all platform data.
In a heated exchange with Sen. Josh Hawley, Pappas also denied ever sharing data with the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. The two then engaged in a long back-and-forth over whether any ByteDance employees held CCP affiliations.
“We have thousands of people that work at the company, so I’m not going to vouch on the political affiliation of any particular individual,” Pappas said of China-based employees with potential CCP ties.
“You have no way to assure me that they don’t have access to our citizens’ data, and you won’t answer my question in a straightforward way about whether a CCP member has ever gained access,” Hawley retorted.
This exchange is indicative of the kind of charges Pappas and TikTok faced throughout the hearing. Even to kick things off, Sen. Rob Portman expressed concerns over TikTok operating in the U.S. since “Chinese law requires all companies operating under its jurisdiction to in essence allow the CCP to access every piece of data collected.”
The focus on TikTok made for a quiet outing for the other tech executives — at least relative to hearings of years past.
Meta, in particular, was able to escape the usual scrutiny it has faced in D.C. appearances. Chief product officer Chris Cox said Meta’s ranking goal is simply to “help people see what they find most valuable,” denying that the company tries to keep users on the platform for a specific length of time.
For Meta, the time away from the spotlight isn’t all good. Of course, there’s an obvious benefit to not being the prime target, and TikTok’s ties to China finally gave Congress bigger fish to fry. But the change in spotlight isn’t just about China — Congress is also paying more attention to TikTok because it’s passing Meta as the most influential social platform in the U.S.Instagram users reportedly spend one-tenth the amount of time on Reels compared to the time TikTok users spend on the platform, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week based on internal Meta documents. Meta denied the accuracy of the report. Regardless, one need not look further than Instagram’s recent redesign to know the future of social looks a lot more like TikTok. So while Meta executives may have enjoyed the time away from the spotlight on Wednesday, perhaps they’ll eventually come to reminisce about those Senate grilling sessions.