Apple and TikTok took a lashing Tuesday for skipping a congressional hearing meant to explore the tech industry and its ties to China, an absence that now threatens to bring sustained political scrutiny of the companies' controversial relationships with Beijing.
Two empty chairs at a witness table served to illustrate the companies' absence from the hearing, convened by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a tech-industry critic who opened the session by blasting Apple and TikTok over "the danger of Chinese tech platforms' entry into the US market, and the danger of American tech companies' operations in China."
Hawley reserved his most pointed criticism for TikTok, questioning whether the company - owned by ByteDance, a Chinese conglomerate - sufficiently protected US users' data and resisted censorship demands government officials in Beijing.
Hawley cited reporting from The Washington Post that cited former employees saying they often felt pressure from officials at their Chinese headquarters to downplay videos deemed to be politically or culturally controversial. Hoping to address critics' lingering fears, Vanessa Pappas, the company's top US official, told The Post TikTok is "not directed by any foreign government, including the Chinese government."
"TikTok claims they don't take direction from China. They claim they don't censor . . . But that's not what former employees of TikTok say," Hawley said.
The criticisms come at a tough time for TikTok, which is facing investigation by the US government for potential national security concerns. TikTok has maintained its independence, stressing on that US users' data is stored in Virginia with a backup in Singapore while noting it does not make decisions about content moderation based on signals from Beijing.
Hawley also took aim at Apple, stressing its ties to China are "risking compromise with authoritarianism." He raised iCloud, the iPhone maker's cloud-storage service, which he said houses Chinese citizens' data locally. Government rules require Apple to offer iCloud in this way, but Hawley charged the setup could undermine users' security, echoing concerns raised by some human-rights and privacy advocates. Apple previously has said it advocated against the law but was unsuccessful.
"We're accustomed in hearings like this one to hearing about Apple as a good corporate citizen," the senator said, citing the company's privacy practices. "But Apple's business model and business practices are increasingly entangled with China, a fact they would rather we think not too much about."
Apple previously has said it advocated against the law but was unsuccessful. The company declined comment on the hearing, but pointed to its past statement on the matter: "Apple has not created nor were we requested to create any backdoors and Apple will continue to retain control over the encryption keys to iCloud data," it said. "As with other countries, we will respond to legal requests for data that we have in our possession for individual users, never bulk data, and when we provide data, we will continue to include the requests in our semi-annual transparency reports."
Apple has struggled with its own share of controversies involving China in recent months. In October, Apple removed an emoji for the flag of Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory, from operating systems for users in Hong Kong; it banned a news outlet from its App Store that had covered the Hong Kong protesters critically; and it removed an app from that portal that had helped those demonstrators avoid police crackdowns. Responding to concerns at the time, Apple said the app ultimately had served to help some "target and ambush police."
The explanation didn't sit well with Hawley, who retorted that at Apple, its "corporate values won't do much to protect you."