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Adstoppi Blog | A credibility problem with Congress TikTok has facing

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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.

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