TikTok admitted that it had censored content critical of China in its “early days.”
The admission came from Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s U.K. director of government relations and public policy, who assured the British parliament in a hearing last Thursday that they had ceased the practice “for at least over a year.”
Yesterday we heard that there must be transparency in supply chains to ensure businesses do not profit from forced labour #Uygher. Sean Cady (@thenorthface) said that consumers want high ethical standards in the goods they buy.
— Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (@CommonsBEIS) November 6, 2020
Parliament addressed concerns of human rights groups that asked companies to cut ties with factories suspected of employing forced laborers in Xinjiang. Aside from TikTok, brands such as Nike, H&M and The North Face showed up at the hearing.
“In the early days of TikTok, there were some policies in place that took what we call a ‘blunt instrument’ to the way in which content was censored,” Kanter told the parliament. “There were some incidents where content was not allowed on the platform, specifically with regard to the Uyghur situation.”
Kanter said those were previous content guidelines written to prevent conflict on the platform. However, she retracted a part of her statement the following day, saying that she “misspoke” about the Uyghurs.
“TikTok has previously acknowledged that in our very early days, we took a blunt approach to moderating content that promoted conflict, but we’ve also said we recognized this was the wrong approach and eliminated it,” Kanter told CNN. “However, we want to be absolutely clear that even in those early policies, there was never a policy around the Uyghur community, which is where I misspoke.”
At the hearing, Kanter reiterated that TikTok belongs to an international company called ByteDance Ltd., which is incorporated in the Cayman Islands. The app has a Chinese version called Douyin, owned by ByteDance China in Beijing, according to Inkstone News.
While TikTok continues to deny censorship, multiple reports have claimed otherwise. Last year, the company blocked user Feroza Aziz (@ferozaaziz), a U.S. teen who criticized the Chinese government for its treatment of Uyghurs in a viral video.
In March, The Intercept reported internal documents that allegedly state policies against uploads from users with “abnormal body shape,” “ugly facial looks,” “obvious beer belly,” “too many wrinkles,” “eye disorders,” dwarfism and many other “low quality” traits. Videos shot in “shabby” or “dilapidated” environments, such as slums and rural fields, were also systematically hidden from new users.
More recently, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reported that TikTok “shadow-banned” LGBT hashtags in Bosnia, Jordan and Russia. The company acknowledged the restriction, claiming compliance with local laws.
@tiktok_uk can you please tell me why you have chosen to target #LGBT content creators like myself and shadow ban us? This is totally unacceptable. Do you know how much hard work and dedication goes into creating these videos for our fans? 😡😡😡
— Camilla Parkyaballs (@CParkyaballs) September 13, 2020
Aside from the issue of censorship, TikTok has been under scrutiny over fears that it could be sharing user data with the Chinese government. President Donald Trump, for one, has called to ban the app (among others), but a federal judge ruled against the move in late September.
Trump also issued an executive order demanding ByteDance to divest its U.S. assets by Nov. 12. However, the order does not state what happens if ByteDance declines, so TikTok on Tuesday filed a petition for a review, according to CNBC.
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