Technology

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew explains how US data will be kept out of China

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew gave a rare public interview at The New York Times’ DealBook conference today, telling host Andrew Ross Sorkin that he is “responsible for all the strategic decisions at TikTok” in response to a question about interference from the Chinese government.

The 40-year-old Chew was funny and relaxed for most of the interview, even if many of his answers sounded straight from the 2010s Zuckerberg / Dorsey social-networking-is-good-for-the-world playbook. Did you know TikTok enables people to express themselves and build communities around shared interests? Chew is particularly proud of booktok, a hashtag community with over 70 billion views that has become a force in the publishing industry. But asked a question about the negative impact TikTok might have on young women, he demurred. (Actually, that is straight from the early 2010s Instagram playbook as well.)

At the same time, Chew was prepared and ready for questions about Chinese interference in TikTok, whose ownership by China-based ByteDance has caused calls for the app to be banned on both sides of the aisle. “We take all these concerns seriously, we study them, we have been working with [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to solve what we think is a very solvable problem,” he said to Sorkin.

His answers sounded straight from the 2010s Zuckerberg / Dorsey social-networking-is-good-for-the-world playbook

The solution is “Project Texas,” in which TikTok will move its data from Virginia and Singapore to a new cloud infrastructure in the United States run by Oracle, where only a team made of up of US residents will have access. The system is “expensive to build, and it’s challenging to do it, but we are doing it to address these concerns,” Chew said.

“We are ahead of the curve on data localization,” Chew said. “No company organizes data like this.”

He followed up by saying the real solution is transparency and highlighted the company’s transparency reports, saying “no foreign government has asked us for user data before, and if they did we would say no.”

Chew touched on a few more topics, noting that the famed TikTok algorithm is “just math” that recommends content based on user signals like watch time and engagement, and that the algorithm in the United States is already different than the algorithm in China because the different user groups interact differently. He also touched on Elon Musk’s investment in Twitter, saying that “Elon is a very successful entrepreneur,” but that “it’s too early to tell” what will happen next. He did offer a point of disagreement, though, saying that “platform safety is incredibly important” and that “platforms need to invest in trust and safety,” in sharp contrast to Elon’s culling of those teams at Twitter.

“We have a responsibility to invest more to make sure that any trends and content not suitable for young people is moderated off the platform,” Chew said, further suggesting the parents in the audience set up the monitoring settings on their kids’ TikTok accounts.

Chew also noted TikTok is the only platform at its scale which doesn’t accept political ads, saying that they don’t fill the company’s mission of inspiring creativity and creating joy. “We don’t think political ads do this,” he said to laughter from the audience.

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