Home Blog Terms & Conditions Privacy Policy

Adstoppi Blog | A credibility problem with Congress TikTok has facing

Published by:


On Monday we talked about some of the pressures stacking up on TikTok: increasing skepticism from Congress about its Chinese parent company ByteDance; a raft of new competitors slurping up venture capital and building their own short-form video apps powered by machine learning; and the public-perception risk that comes from keeping executives behind the scenes and responding to questions primarily via blog post.

Well, today there was a new blog post.

In it, Vanessa Pappas, TikTok's general manager for the United States, laid out her case that the management team behind the app is and will remain independent of demands from the Chinese government. The company is building out a US-based leadership team, a US-based content moderation team; and localized community guidelines. It pledged to work with US regulators. And it super-pinkie-promises that nothing untoward will ever happen to Americans’ data. Pappas writes:

We know that our users want to feel secure and informed when it comes to handling their data. Recognizing the importance of this issue, we want to be as transparent as possible in order to earn the trust and confidence of our US stakeholders in this crucial area. As we have said before, and recently confirmed through an independent security audit, we store all US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. TikTok's data centers are located entirely outside of China. Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices. In addition, we periodically conduct internal and external reviews of our security practices in an effort to ensure we are keeping up with current risks.

It all sounds good — just what you would want a company in TikTok's position to say. The policies it describes are not meaningfully different from any US-based social network, which also have American leadership and localize their community guidelines wherever they operate.

But one of TikTok's core challenges is that Americans may simply not believe them. Particularly if they remember an incident from the spring of 2018. Jiayang Fan wrote about it in the New Yorker:

On April 9th, the day before Zuckerberg's testimony began, Bytedance was ordered to suspend its most popular product, a news-aggregator app called Jinri Toutiao (Today's Headlines). The next day, regulators yanked Neihan Duanzi, the company's social-media platform, where users share jokes and videos. Last Wednesday, Zhang's official apology appeared on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. His company had taken "the wrong path," he wrote, and, along the way, he had "failed his users." Perhaps it was not entirely coincidental that his words echoed a notice posted by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the country's media regulator, which accused Bytedance of making apps that offended common sensibility—the news stories on Jinri Toutiao were "opposed to morality" and the jokes on Neihan Duanzi were "off-color." For these reasons, the state said, the platforms had "triggered intense resentment among Internet users."

After the incident, ByteDance CEO Zhang Zhemin promised to "increase its team of censors from six thousand to ten thousand, create a blacklist of banned users, and develop better technology to monitor and screen content." Self-censorship is now a core part of ByteDance — the thing that allows it to keep functioning. Is it paranoid to assume that censorship will creep into TikTok as well?

Maybe not, according to an excellent new report from Drew Harwell and Tony Romm in the Washington Post. The reporters talked with six former TikTok employees who raised questions about the boundaries between US and Chinese leadership:

Former U.S. employees said moderators based in Beijing had the final call on whether flagged videos were approved. The former employees said their attempts to persuade Chinese teams not to block or penalize certain videos were routinely ignored, out of caution about the Chinese government’s restrictions and previous penalties on other ByteDance apps. [...]

"They want to be a global company, and numbers-wise, they've had that success," said one former ByteDance manager who left this year. "But the purse is still in China: The money always comes from there, and the decisions all come from there."

And what of the fact that data is stored in the United States and Singapore and not China? Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, tells Harwell and Romm:

where the data is stored is "pretty much irrelevant": "The leverage the government has over the people who have access to that data, that's what's relevant."

All this came up at today's Senate hearing about China and tech, in which TikTok (and Apple) declined to participate. (TikTok said it did not have enough time to prepare.) Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) highlighted the Post's reporting and asked for more answers:

"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 hearing didn't amount to much — it was an hour long and consisted largely of senators lecturing empty chairs. But today was just the first round of a longer fight to come. And when the real battles arrive, TikTok will have to muster more than a blog post.

Recent Post

In a rare investor update on Monday, Apple said the global effects of the coronavirus outbreak are having have a material impact on the company bottom line. The company does not expect to meet its own revenue guidance for the second quarter due to the impact of the virus, and warns that "worldwide iPhone supply will be temporarily constrained." Store closures and reduced retail traffic in China are also expected to have a significant impact. All of Apple's iPhone manufacturing partner sites have been reopened but are "ramping up more slowly than we had anticipated," which means that fewer iPhones than expected will be manufactured. As a result, "[t]hese iPhone supply shortages will temporarily affect revenues worldwide," says Apple. Regarding Apple's retail presence in China, the company...

Last month, Blizzard announced that all of its scheduled Overwatch League games in China during February and March were canceled in the wake of the coronavirus. Now the publisher has revealed its plan to reschedule the games and it involves moving them out of the country altogether. According to Blizzard, all of the canceled matches which were set to take place in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou will now take place in a studio in Seoul. The matches will be played during the sixth and seventh weeks of OWL, which take place on the weekends of March 14th and March 21st. Previously scheduled games in Miami and Atlanta that were set to take place those weekends will be unaffected, according to Blizzard. Specific match times are expected to be announced "soon." (Seoul will also be home to OWL...

Facebook has canceled its upcoming global marketing conference out of caution for the coronavirus outbreak, according to Reuters. The conference was set to take place in March at San Francisco's Moscone Center, and 4,000 people were expected to attend. "Our priority is the health and safety of our teams, so out of an abundance of caution, we cancelled our Global Marketing Summit due to evolving public health risks related to coronavirus," said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. Facebook canceling its global marketing conference comes on the heels of this week's cancellation of Mobile World Congress, also due to coronavirus concerns. In the days leading up to MWC's cancelation, several vendors, including LG, Ericsson, Nvidia, Intel, Vivo, Sony, Amazon, NTT Docomo, Cisco,...

The world's biggest phone show, Mobile World Congress, is no longer taking place this year. After coronavirus threatened to throw MWC into chaos, the GSM Association (GSMA), which organizes the show, has now canceled it. It comes after more than a week of exhibitors and companies pulling out of MWC. In a statement, GSMA CEO John Hoffman said the coronavirus outbreak has made it "impossible" to hold the event. MWC was scheduled to take place in Barcelona between February 24th and the 27th. Coronavirus infections have exceeded 42,000 with the total number of deaths at more than 1,000. Most infections and deaths have been reported in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province in China, but at least 25 countries have now reported cases. The GSMA had tried to allay fears with increased...

When Attorney General William Barr announced Monday that the U.S. had charged four Chinese military hackers in the giant Equifax hack of 2017, he also confirmed something that cybersecurity experts had long suspected: China was also behind the hack of information on some 500 million Marriott hotel guests in 2018. Barr also mentioned the 2015 hack of the Office of Personnel Management, another major breach that included sensitive information from about 21.5 million Americans who had done work for the federal government. In doing so, Barr publicly confirmed that China has been collecting troves of personal data on U.S. citizens for years. Beginning around 2014, a host of American organizations that store personal identifying information were hacked, with either the government or major...

The race for Oscar glory just kicked into high gear. "The Irishman," "Joker," "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" and "1917" dominated the list of nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards announced early Monday, with each scoring best picture nods. But as always, some of the major headlines revolve around the movies and stars left out of the running. Here's a look at the key takeaways. 'Joker' isn't done conquering the culture Todd Phillips' stark, gloomy take on Gotham City, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the DC Comics supervillain, stirred up sociopolitical debate like few Hollywood blockbusters in recent memory. The major critics were divided over the movie's rough-edged violence and lurid depiction of mental illness, with some accusing Phillips of exploiting cultural anxieties around incels,...

A U.S. citizen diagnosed with novel coronavirus has died in China in what appears to be the first death of an American from the virus that has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and killed more than 700, a U.S. embassy spokesperson said. "We can confirm a 60-year-old U.S. citizen diagnosed with coronavirus died at Jinyintian Hospital in Wuhan, China on Feb. 6," a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said. "We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss. Out of the respect for the family's privacy, we have no further comment," the spokesperson said. The New York Times first reported the death of the American in Wuhan. China's national health commission said that as of Saturday morning local time, there had been 722 deaths from the virus in the mainland....

LOS ANGELES Federal investigators on Friday ruled out engine failure as a possible cause of the helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others. The chartered Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that crashed into a hill Jan. 26 had two engines that burned in the aftermath, the National Transportation Safety Board said in an investigative update. "Viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure," the update states. After the crash, the NTSB has launched a Go Team to the site in an attempt to find the cause. The update reported that a witness to the crash said the area was "surrounded by mist," in the NTSB's paraphrasing, when the Sikorsky was spotted moving fast, descending and...

A prominent Chinese doctor, who had been punished by police for blowing the whistle on the coronavirus outbreak, has died, the Wuhan Central Hospital reported. The hospital confirmed Dr. Li Wenliang's death in a post on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter: "Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang of our hospital, who was unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection, failed after all efforts, and died at 2:58 on February 7, 2020. We deeply regret and mourn this." The confirmation from the hospital came after a day of confusion over the fate of Li, who had tried to warn his colleagues about the deadly new respiratory virus in online chat forums. Two sources had confirmed Li's death Thursday, according to the Global Times, which reported that...

The Apple Watch wasn't just the best-selling smartwatch last year, but also put the Swiss watch industry to shame, according to new sales estimates compiled by Strategy Analytics. The report estimates Apple shipped nearly 31 million units in 2019, a 36 percent jump over last year. The Swiss watch industry, which includes brands like Swatch and TAG Heuer, only shipped an estimated 21.1 million units, a 13 percent decline, Strategy Analytics says. While Apple doesn't break out specific Apple Watch unit sales in its quarterly earnings, Strategy Analytics gathers data from retail partners and other vendors to arrive at its sales estimates. "Analog wristwatches remain popular among older consumers, but younger buyers are tipping toward smartwatches and computerized wristwear," writes Neil...


Login Join Now