TikTok, the popular music-video app, is building up its fledgling lobbying operations to counter stepped-up pressure in Washington over its Chinese ownership and wage an escalating battle with Facebook for viewers.
The company, which registered its first lobbyist in June, is seeking to add a US policy chief, plans to further expand its internal policy staff and is reshuffling outside lobbyists, according to people familiar with its plans.
The policy chief position is a new one and will help shape the company’s advocacy priorities and oversee its growing lobbying operations, said two people familiar with the moves.
TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, also has hired Monument Advocacy, a public affairs and lobbying firm known for its expertise in technology policy, according to another person familiar with the matter. The person said TikTok is winding down its relationship with lobbyists at the law firm Covington & Burling, which has close ties to Facebook.
The relationship between Covington and Facebook was one reason for TikTok’s decision to break with the firm, the person said. Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan formerly co-chaired Covington’s data privacy and security practice. Facebook also hired Covington to help work on its anti-conservative bias report released in August. Covington’s Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator from Arizona, headed up that review.
The lobbying push is part of TikTok’s effort to calm US regulators and policy makers and try to persuade them that it’s really a US company, said one of the people. Concerns are growing that TikTok could pose a national security threat because of its Chinese ownership and the risk that the government in Beijing could get access to the app’s growing troves of user data.
Facebook has underscored Washington’s concerns about TikTok as it combats its own scrutiny from lawmakers and antitrust enforcers.
Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg insinuated during an October speech at Georgetown University that protesters in Hong Kong use Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform “due to strong encryption and privacy protections,” whereas “mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US” on TikTok.
Monument Advocacy counts Amazon.com and Microsoft as clients, but doesn’t work directly with Facebook, unlike other firms TikTok spoke with, the person said. Monument does represent an industry coalition on government surveillance that includes Facebook.
TikTok, Monument and Facebook declined to comment. Covington didn’t respond to requests for comment. The lobbying changes haven’t yet been disclosed in public filings.
ByteDance is expanding its operations aggressively across the US, hiring staff in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The app has logged more than 564 million installations this year and has been downloaded 1.45 billion times since launching, according to data from Sensor Tower, a San Francisco-based market intelligence firm that tracks the global app market.
US officials are reviewing whether ByteDance’s $1 billion purchase of social media startup Musical.ly two years ago to merge it with TikTok poses a national security risk, Bloomberg News has reported. That panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or Cfius, has toughened scrutiny of acquisitions of American companies under President Donald Trump and is paying closer attention to how deals can give foreign buyers access to data about US citizens.
“We have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the US,” a TikTok representative said in a statement earlier this month.
Lawmakers had pushed for a review, saying that TikTok poses a potential counterintelligence threat. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York wrote a letter with Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas to U.S. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. They expressed concerns about foreign interference in American elections and the security of user data on the app, in addition to national security fears.
The company was also the focus of a hearing earlier this month during which one Republican senator blasted it as a threat to global data security.
“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 whenever they need it,” said Josh Hawley of Missouri, a frequent tech critic.
TikTok has rejects the notion it’s controlled by the Chinese government or that U.S. user data is at risk.
“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government,” the company wrote in a blog post last month. “TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
ByteDance, which began lobbying this summer, registered its in-house lobbyist Eric Ebenstein in June and brought on Covington in July, paying it $110,000 during the third quarter, according to federal disclosures. The company spent a total of $120,000 on lobbying from July through September.
TikTok also announced last month that it had tapped another top legal and lobbying firm — K&L Gates — to advise it on policies around transparency and content moderation, though the firm won’t be lobbying.
Former representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who led the House Science and Technology Committee, is on the account, as is former Republican Representative Jeff Denham, who represented a district in California.
© 2019 Bloomberg LP
TikTok accused by amputee model of deciding who is ‘vulnerable to bullying’
Amputee, model and body positivity advocate Jess Quinn has lashed out at ever-growing social media network TikTok for censoring disabled people because it deemed them “susceptible” to bullying.
The 27-year-old New Zealander, who lost her leg to cancer when she was nine years old, shared her message on Instagram on Thursday.
Accompanying a video of her dancing with her prosthesis and wearing a hoodie with the words “all bodies welcome here” was a stark message for the video-based social media network.
“I hear you have shadow banned videos by ‘disabled, fat or LGBTQ ‘ users because they’re ‘vulnerable to bullying if their videos reach a wide audience’,” Quinn wrote.
Shadow banning is the practice by social media platforms of blocking users so it is not obvious to the user that they or their comments have been blocked.
“Well, on behalf of all of those people, the only bullying is your exclusion of people who you believe are ‘vulnerable’,” Quinn wrote.
“I thought I’d add a little video to your app of my ‘vulnerable’ self, wearing a sweatshirt that says ALL BODIES WELCOME HERE, while removing one of my body parts.”
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Her frustrations are due to an early edition of the app’s terms and conditions, which restricted content from people “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition”.
Though Quinn says this never affected her personally, she was distressed it could have.
In the video below, an explainer of what TikTok actually is
In response, TikTok has conceded it was “blunt and temporary”.
“This was never designed to be a long-term solution, but rather a way to help manage a troubling trend,” a spokeswoman told 7NEWS.com.au.
“While the intention was good, it became clear that the approach was wrong.
“We want TikTok to be a space where users can safely and freely express themselves, and we have long since changed the policy in favour of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”
A blog post on the social network’s website says the user is in control of who is able to respond to their content, with blocking and reporting features available.
Quinn said the overarching goal for people with disabilities was just to be treated like anyone else.
“I thank you for your attempt at being considerate to us ‘vulnerable’ people but quite frankly we just want to be treated like everyone else,” she wrote.
TikTok Prevented Disabled Users’ Videos From Going Viral: Report
Chinese short video-sharing app TikTok has acknowledged that content produced by disabled users was deliberately suppressed by the firm’s moderators in a bid to prevent these users from becoming victims of bullying, the media reported. Facing criticism, TikTok acknowledged that its approach had been flawed, the BBC reported on Tuesday, adding that the measure was exposed by the German digital rights news site Netzpolitik.
Disability rights campaigners termed the strategy “bizarre”.
A leaked extract from TikTok’s rulebook gave examples of what its moderators were instructed to be on the lookout for: disabled people, those with Down’s syndrome and autism, people with facial disfigurements, and people with other “facial problems” such as a birthmark or sight squint.
Such users were “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition”, according to the rulebook.
The moderators were instructed to restrict viewership of affected users’ videos to the country where they were uploaded, according to an unnamed TikTok source quoted by Netzpolitik.
The moderators were told to prevent the clips of vulnerable users from appearing in the app’s main video feed once they had reached between 6,000 to 10,000 views, said the report.
A spokesman for TikTok admitted that it had made the wrong choice, the BBC reported.
“Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy,” he was quoted as saying.
“This was never designed to be a long-term solution, and while the intention was good, it became clear that the approach was wrong,” the spokesperson told the BBC.
TikTok Admits Error After Penalising Teen Who Posted Political Videos
TikTok on Wednesday acknowledged it had erred in penalising a 17-year-old who had posted witty but incisive political videos, promising it would restore her ability to access her account on her personal device. The company’s apology – coupled with a new pledge to reevaluate its policies – still failed to satisfy the teen, Feroza Aziz, who again raised concerns that she’d been the victim of censorship by the fast-growing, Chinese-owned social-media app.
“TikTok is trying to cover up this whole mess,” she told The Washington Post. “I won’t let them get away with this.”
The saga started earlier this week, when Aziz tweeted that her profile had been temporarily suspended. She attributed the penalty to the fact she had recently shared a satirical video that urged viewers to research the harrowing conditions facing Muslims in China’s detention camps. Her comment quickly garnered widespread attention because TikTok is owned by a China-based tech conglomerate, ByteDance, though the company has sought to stress recently its US operations are independent from Beijing’s strict censorship rules.
TikTok, however, said it had penalised her not for her comments about China but rather a video she’d shared earlier – a short clip, posted on to a different account, that included a photo of Osama bin Laden. Aziz’s video violated the company’s policies against terrorist content, TikTok said, so the company took action against her device, making any of her other accounts unavailable on that device. TikTok said her videos about China did not violate its rules, had not been removed and had been viewed more than a million times.
But the video in question – a copy of which she shared with The Washington Post – actually was a comedic video about dating that the company had misinterpreted as terrorism, Aziz said.
By Wednesday evening, TikTok had reversed course: The company said it restored her ability to access her account on her personal device. TikTok also acknowledged that her video about China had been removed for 50 minutes on Wednesday morning, which it attributed to a “human moderation error.”
“We acknowledge that at times, this process will not be perfect. Humans will sometimes make mistakes, such as the one made today in the case of @getmefamouspartthree’s video,” wrote Eric Han, the head of safety at TikTok U.S., referring to Aziz’s account.
“When those mistakes happen, however, our commitment is to quickly address and fix them, undertake trainings or make changes to reduce the risk of the same mistakes being repeated, and fully own the responsibility for our errors,” Han continued.
In doing so, TikTok for the first time offered detail about the actions it has taken to police its platform: In November, the company said, it banned 2,406 devices associated with accounts that violated rules about terrorism, child exploitation or spam. It was part of that sweep that Aziz’s own device had been banned, locking her out of her account there.
Aziz, however, said late Wednesday she isn’t convinced.
“Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No,” she tweeted Wednesday.
TikTok’s policies have drawn critical attention in Washington, where investigations have begun into whether the platform presents a national security risk.
© The Washington Post 2019