TikTok reaffirms independence from China in letter to US lawmakers

Video-sharing app reiterated its independence from in a letter to US lawmakers after company executives declined to testify at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The virally popular short-video app, owned by Beijing-based tech firm Bytedance, is attracting growing scrutiny in the United States following reports that it censors videos deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government.

  • Concerns surrounding the company also include its data protection practices as the app is particularly popular with teenagers.
  • About 60% of its 26.5 million monthly active users in the US are between the ages of 16 and 24, the company said earlier this year.
  • TikTok has repeatedly denied the accusations, saying that it stores American user data in the United States and that the Chinese government does not require its content to be censored.
  • However, its claims failed to convince US regulators amid a wave of probes against the company.

“TikTok claims they don’t store American user data in China. That’s nice. But all it takes is one knock on the door of their parent company based in China from a Communist Party official for that data to be transferred to the Chinese government’s hands.”

Details: TikTok said in the letter that it had hired a US-based auditing firm to analyze its data security practices, according to Reuters, which has seen a copy of the letter.

  • TikTok said it stores all US user data in the United States and backs it up on servers in Singapore, said the company in the letter dated Monday and signed by its US General Manager Vanessa Pappas.
  • It also said it plans to form a committee of outside experts to advise on content moderation and transparency. The committee may include two former US congressmen.
  • TikTok will not accept political advertisements, similar to Twitter’s recent ban on political ads.
  • The company said its investors were mainly big institutional investors and that the app was not available in China.

Context: On Tuesday, executives from TikTok declined to attend a hearing organized by Hawley to explore privacy and security concerns brought by social platforms and whether they comply with China’s domestic censorship rules.

  • Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the US government had launched a national security review of TikTok owner Bytedance’s $1 billion acquisition of US social media app Musical.ly.
  • The deal was struck in 2017 and led to the merging of user data from Musical.ly and TikTok in 2018.
  • Last month, US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Macguire, for a separate review of the potential national security risks posed by TikTok.

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