TikTok 's head of public policy Michael Beckerman told lawmakers at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday that the social media company considers ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to be a part of its "corporate group."
The acknowledgment, which came after intense questioning from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, is a critical distinction for lawmakers who expressed concerns about TikTok's data collection policies and ties to the Chinese government.
"Access for our data is done by our U.S. teams," Beckerman said, "if we are to collect biometric information, which we do not collect biometric information data to identify Americans, we would provide consent and opportunity for consent first."
Cruz also wanted clarification from TikTok about the company's connections to subsidiaries of ByteDance. In August, Reuters reported the Chinese Communist Party acquired a stake and a board seat in Beijing ByteDance Technology, which is a subsidiary of ByteDance that controls the Chinese version of TikTok called Douyin.
Beckerman refused to answer Cruz's repeated questions about whether Beijing ByteDance Technology, the board of which now includes a former member of China's Communist Party, is also considered to be a part of TikTok's "corporate group" that can access user data.
"That entity has no affiliation with TikTok. It's based for domestic licenses of the business in China that is not affiliated or connected to TikTok," Beckerman said. But he did not clarify if the sister company, Beijing ByteDance Technology, is considered a part of the company's "corporate group" and allowed to access user data.
"I've asked you three times about the sister company that is obviously another affiliate, you've refused three times," Cruz told Beckerman. The senator added "that does not give this committee any confidence that TikTok is doing anything other than participating in Chinese propaganda and espionage on Americans."
Lawmakers also heard from executives at Snapchat and YouTube. It was the first-time that senators publicly questioned leaders from the video and photo sharing company Snapchat and the first-time a TikTok executive testified under oath.
The hearing, convened by the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security, focused on online protection for kids. Last month, the same regulatory body questioned Facebook executive Antigone Davis about Instagram's impact on young teens after whistleblower Frances Haugen presented the committee with internal research that indicated Instagram had negative effects on young girls.
All three executives indicated they would support federal legislation that banned targeting underage children with advertisements. Beckerman said TikTok would be willing to take a step further and ban advertisers from targeting children on specific topics that are harmful.
Snapchat's vice president of global public policy Jennifer Stout said the company will support independent external researchers who want to analyze the company's use of algorithms . Beckerman made a similar pledge. But YouTube's vice president for government affairs and public policy Leslie Miller said data access for outside researchers "would depend on the details" of the project.
The subcommittee has now held multiple hearings in the last month about the impact of social media platforms on young adults. Senator Richard Blumenthal, chair of the subcommittee, has also called on Facebook CEO to testify about his platform's impact on young teens.
Blumenthal said America's parents "cannot trust" the social media apps that their children are using.
"We need strong rules to protect children online, real transparency, real accountability," Blumenthal said. "I want a market where the competition is to protect children, not to exploit them," he added.
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