By KELVIN CHAN, HALEUYA HADERO and FARNOUSH AMIRI
WASHINGTON (AP) -- TikTok is ramping up a public relations campaign to fend off the possibility of a nationwide ban by the Biden administration, and it's bringing some unconventional advocates to help: online influencers.
Dozens of TikTok creators -- some with millions of followers on the video-sharing app -- came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby in favor of the platform, one day before lawmakers are slated to grill the company's chief executive about concerns over user data falling into the hands of the Chinese government.
Shou Zi Chew plans to tell Congress on Thursday that TikTok, which was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, is committed to user safety, data protection and security, and keeping the platform free from Chinese government influence. He will also answer questions from U.S. lawmakers worried about the social media platform's effects on its young user base.
At the heart of TikTok's trouble is a Chinese national intelligence law that would compel Chinese companies to fork over data to the government for whatever purposes it deems to involve national security. There's also concern Beijing might try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation through the platform.
At a media event coordinated by TikTok on Wednesday, some content creators acknowledged that concerns about data security are legitimate, but pointed to precautions the company is taking, such as a $1.5 billion plan -- dubbed Project Texas -- to route all U.S. data to domestic servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle.
TikTok has been attempting to sell that proposal to the Biden administration, but skeptics have argued it doesn't go far enough. The administration is reportedly demanding the company's Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a nationwide ban.
Janette Ok, a fashion and beauty influencer on TikTok, said in an interview Wednesday that TikTok invited her to the lobbying event a few weeks ago and paid for her trip to Washington. She's been able to make a full-time career from her videos, earning income from partnerships with brands looking to capture the eyes of her 1.7 million followers. She said her popularity on TikTok has also allowed her to have other opportunities, like TV and commercial acting roles.
"I don't know much about politics, but I know a lot about fashion, and I know a lot about people," Ok said. "And just to be here and share my story is what TikTok has invited me to do."
Tensions around TikTok have been building on Capitol Hill, reaching a boiling point late last year when a proposal to ban the app off of government phones passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Joe Biden. House Republicans are pushing a bill that would give Biden the power to ban the app.
The effort to target TikTok is part of a larger, tougher approach that Congress has taken in the past several months as China's relationship with two U.S. adversaries -- Russia and Iran -- has come into focus. A recent incident with a spy balloon forced even some wary congressional Democrats to join Republicans in opposition, and there is now a strong bipartisan concern in Washington that Beijing would use legal and regulatory power to seize American user data or use the platform to push favorable narratives or misinformation.
On Thursday, Chew will be sticking to a familiar script as he urges officials against pursuing an all-out ban on TikTok or for the company to be sold off to new owners. TikTok's efforts to ensure the security of its users' data go "above and beyond" what any of its rivals are doing, according to Chew's prepared remarks released ahead of his appearance before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Chew pushed back against fears that TikTok could become a tool of China's ruling Communist Party because its parent company, ByteDance, was founded in Beijing and also operates from there.
"Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country," Chew said.
It's "emphatically untrue" that TikTok sends data on its American users to Beijing, he said.
"TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government," Chew said. "Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made."
Chew, a 40-year-old Singaporean who was appointed CEO in 2021, said in a TikTok video this week that the congressional hearing comes at a "pivotal moment" for the company, which now has 150 million American users.