Prior to running the most popular social media app in the world, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was an intern for one of his largest competitors.
Chew, 40, has led TikTok since 2021 — overseeing its ascent to become the world’s most downloaded app last year, with 672 million downloads, according to a Statista analysis of iOS and Google Play data.
The success of the app, which is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, has sounded alarms for U.S. officials who believe it could be a potential security breach. On Thursday, Chew sat before Congress to defend TikTok against spying claims as Congress and President Biden weigh a potential U.S. ban.
“We are committed to [being] very transparent with our users about what we collect,” Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I don’t believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry.”
The platform also automatically collects location data, metadata and cookies for advertising purposes, which is consistent with the privacy policies of companies like Meta and Snapchat.
Chew has some experience in this arena. Born in Singapore, he graduated from the University College London in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He then got an MBA from Harvard University — and while there, he interned at Facebook, he told Harvard Business School’s alumni website in 2020.
At the time, in the summer of 2009, Facebook was on the rise. It overtook Google as the country’s most popular website the following year, garnering 8.9% of all U.S. visits between January and November 2010, Reuters reported.
Today, Facebook has 2.9 billion active users, according to Meta’s 2022 Q4 earnings presentation. TikTok may not be far behind: It announced reaching a billion monthly users in 2021, just five years after it was founded, and has likely grown since.
The video platform’s meteoric growth has seemingly thrown a wrench into Facebook’s plans. Zuckerberg admitted that he “sort of missed” the new way people “interact with discovered content,” he told Stratechery last year.
Facebook even reportedly changed its algorithms to compete more directly with TikTok last year, emphasizing more short-form video content and altering the way it recommends new posts to users, according to a leaked internal memo obtained by The Verge.
On Thursday, Chew appeared to reference Facebook and other social media competitors while telling Congress that TikTok has “tried to learn the lessons of companies that have come before us,” and that lawmakers’ security concerns should be industry-wide.
“The potential security, privacy, content manipulation concerns raised about TikTok are really not unique to us. The same issues apply to other companies,” he said. “We believe what’s needed are clear transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies. Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns.”
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