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.
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.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Twitter suspended accounts linked to Hezbollah (an Iran-backed militant group) and Hamas (a Palestinian military group). The move came after US lawmakers criticized the company for allowing both groups to remain active even after the State Department labeled them as terrorist organizations.
🔽 Trending down: Another year, another global decline in internet freedom.
🔽 Trending down: Twitter fueled attacks on Muslim candidates in 2018, a significant new study shows. Bots and trolls amplified hateful content on the platform, which was most frequently directed at Muslim women. It created a sense that the candidates faced more criticism than they actually did.
⭐ Social media has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation, according to the 2019 Freedom on the Net report. The study looked at 65 countries around the world and found an overall decline in internet freedom, including in the United States. China remains the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth consecutive year.
While authoritarian powers like China and Russia have played an enormous role in dimming the prospects for technology to deliver greater human rights, the world’s leading social media platforms are based in the United States, and their exploitation by antidemocratic forces is in large part a product of American neglect. Whether due to naïveté about the internet’s role in democracy promotion or policymakers’ laissez-faire attitude toward Silicon Valley, we now face a stark reality: the future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media.
Russia’s “sovereign internet” law just went into effect. It allows Moscow to tighten control over the country’s internet by routing web traffic through state-controlled infrastructure and creating a national system of domain names. The Kremlin says it’s a security measure. And to the extent a surveillance state is as security measure, it is! (Elizabeth Schulze / CNBC)
Activists inside Google are calling on management to break ties with oil and gas companies. More than 1,100 workers asked Google to commit to cutting carbon emissions entirely and drop contracts that “enable or accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels.” (Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
Civil rights leaders are profoundly worried about Facebook’s policy to allow politicians to lie in ads. They met with executives this week to discuss their concerns. (Pema Levy / Mother Jones)
Facebook isn’t always giving people the real reason their pages were shut down, if the shutdown is linked to what the company calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” At times, the company said it was because of privacy concerns, and users only found out the real reason when Facebook released its report. (Jane Lytvynenko and Elamin Abdelmahmoud / BuzzFeed)
How a low-level Ukrainian diplomat propelled himself to Trump’s inner circle by claiming he had knowledge of Democratic collusion with Ukraine in the 2016 election. (He did not.) (Ryan Broderick / BuzzFeed)
A group of YouTube creators is protesting the Federal Trade Commission’s plan to regulate kids’ videos on the platform, saying the new rules will hurt them financially. YouTube agreed not to run personalized ads on kids’ content as part of an FTC settlement in September. (Mark Bergen, Lucas Shaw and Ben Brody / Bloomberg)
Here’s where the Democratic presidential candidates stand on breaking up Big Tech (in slideshow form). (Reuters)
⭐ Little-known companies are amassing highly personal data about you, including food orders and messages, and selling it to companies like Airbnb and Yelp. The goal is to determine how trustworthy you are. Kashmir Hill at The New York Times describes what happened when she got a copy of her report:
As of this summer, though, Sift does have a file on you, which it can produce upon request. I got mine, and I found it shocking: More than 400 pages long, it contained all the messages I’d ever sent to hosts on Airbnb; years of Yelp delivery orders; a log of every time I’d opened the Coinbase app on my iPhone. Many entries included detailed information about the device I used to do these things, including my IP address at the time.
Domestic workers are being illegally bought and sold on Instagram, according to an undercover investigation from the BBC. The platform allows posts to be promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, and sales then take place in private messages. (Owen Pinnell and Jess Kelly / BBC)
Reviews of Facebook’s Portal TV are out. Katie Notopoulos, for one, loves hers. But she agrees with other reviewers who say that privacy concerns about allowing a Facebook device into the home make it a nonstarter for most people. (BuzzFeed)
Adobe, Twitter, and The New York Times announced a new system for adding attribution to photos and other content. A tool will record who created a piece of content and whether it’s been modified by someone else, then let other people and platforms check that data. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Alexa, Google Home and Siri can all be hacked from hundreds of feet away by shining laser pointers or flashlights at the devices’ microphones, say researchers in Japan and at the University of Michigan. In once case, they were able to open a garage door by shining a laser beam at a voice assistant that was connected to it. (Nicole Perlroth / The New York Times)
Google is buying Fitbit for health-care data, not hardware, experts say. The wearable device collects valuable information on hours of sleep, heart rate and steps taken. (Greg Bensinger / The Washington Post)
Netflix and Seth Meyers teamed up to create a button that lets people skip Trump jokes. The comedian’s new stand-up special, Lobby Baby, debuts on the platform today. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
8chan, the anonymous forum that was forced offline due to links to the El Paso shooting, is back after rebranding as 8kun. The message board where the shooter published his manifesto is no longer part of the site. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Pregnant YouTubers are filming their water breaking — and the videos are getting really popular. OK! (Harron Walker / Vice)
More schools are investing in surveillance systems to keep kids safe. But some, like those produced by surveillance company Gaggle, can also be used to monitor students emails, chats, and photos. (Caroline Haskins / BuzzFeed)
Jack Dorsey has a thought about the all-caps styling of Facebook’s new corporate wordmark.