WASHINGTON—House lawmakers on Thursday pummeled TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew about potential Chinese government influence over the platform as well as promotion of misleading and harmful content, as safety and security concerns over the Chinese-controlled app deepen and its popularity in the U.S. grows.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee chair, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), opened the hearing by asking Mr. Chew to state “with 100% certainty” that the Chinese government couldn’t use TikTok or its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance Ltd., to surveil Americans or manipulate the content Americans see.
Mr. Chew said the company is committed to firewalling U.S. user data from “all unwanted foreign access” and would keep content “free from any manipulation from any government.”
“If you can’t say it 100% certain, I take that as a ‘no,’” Mrs. Rodgers shot back.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the panel’s top Democrat, said he wasn’t convinced that TikTok’s security plans would work.
“I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” he said, pushing back on what he said was TikTok’s attempt to portray itself as “a benign company that’s just performing a public service…I don’t buy it.”
In his testimony, Mr. Chew also said the platform would work to ensure a safe environment for young people, another concern of committee members.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action,” Mr. Chew told lawmakers in a packed hearing room. “We have to earn your trust.”
Despite those promises, many in Congress are skeptical that TikTok can ever be beyond the reach of the Chinese government as long as it is owned by ByteDance. The Biden administration recently demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban.
Hours before the hearing, China said it would oppose any forced sale of TikTok, with its Commerce Ministry saying that any sale would involve the export of Chinese technology and must be approved by the Chinese government.
Mrs. Rodgers seized on the Chinese government’s statement as evidence that TikTok could never escape its influence.
“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] believes they have the final say over your company,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “I have zero confidence in your assertion that ByteDance and TikTok are not beholden to the CCP.”
TikTok was hoping Mr. Chew could persuade lawmakers that the company’s $1.5 billion plan to secure user data makes a forced sale unnecessary. But the hearing only magnified concerns about the app’s security, adding to pressure to block access to the app in the U.S.
Rep. Bob Latta (R., Ohio) said TikTok had been insulated from legal claims arising from the death of a 10-year-old girl who had participated in a breath-holding challenge that was popular on TikTok. Mr. Latta questioned why TikTok should be protected by federal law shielding websites when it amplifies “dangerous and life-threatening content to children.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D., Colo.) asked how TikTok could allow misinformation about home health remedies to proliferate on its site.
Rep. Kat Cammack (R., Fla.) showed a TikTok video depicting a handgun firing, with a caption that alluded to Thursday’s hearing as well as Mrs. Rodgers.
Noting that the video had been online for 41 days, she said: “You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans, where you can’t even protect the people in this room?”
Mr. Chew wasn’t allowed to respond because Ms. Cammack’s time had expired.
At the same time, several lawmakers expressed concern that TikTok could distract from the need to regulate other big tech companies.
Several bills are under consideration in Congress that would ban TikTok outright, typically by prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with it. Some would also allow the government to ban or restrict other apps with ties to hostile foreign governments.
Mr. Chew was also questioned by lawmakers over concerns about exploitation of children through the platform. Many lawmakers are unhappy that TikTok’s parent company serves very different content to children within China.
Mr. Chew said that the platform has taken proactive steps to better protect children—including measures that go beyond those employed by other platforms. For example, accounts registered to teens under 16 are set to private by default, and they also can’t send direct messages. Their content is ineligible for recommendation.
An actual ban on TikTok faces practical and legal hurdles, and two federal judges struck down former President Donald Trump’s earlier attempts to do so. Any new attempt would likely hurt Democrats more than Republicans, as TikTok’s dominant audience is composed of younger people who are more likely to vote Democratic.
That said, the app’s wild popularity—the platform now claims to have 150 million monthly users—adds to the political risks of any crackdown.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” Mr. Chew said in a TikTok video this week. “Now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”
On Wednesday morning, TikTok helped organize a news conference at the Capitol featuring dozens of TikTok personalities, who made their own case that banning the app would suppress Americans’ speech. The company has also recently expanded its lobbying and public-relations efforts and run ads at Washington, D.C., subway stops and elsewhere touting the platform’s commitment to user safety.
Before Thursday’s session, Mr. Chew met with members of the House committee, including Rep. Buddy Carter (R., Ga.). The meeting “did not alleviate the congressman’s concerns” about TikTok’s impacts on national security as well as mental health, a spokesman said.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Mich.) even refused a meeting with Mr. Chew ahead of the hearing, a senior aide said.