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Technology

TikTok denies US claims of censorship and privacy failings

App owned by China's Bytedance says it is 'not influenced' by Beijing

TikTok issued a statement on Oct. 25 saying Beijing has never asked it to restrict content and that it would not comply with such a request.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- TikTok, the Chinese-owned app for sharing short videos, has hit back at U.S. accusations that it censors content to appease Beijing and that it compromises user privacy.

"We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period," the company, which is owned by rising Chinese internet giant Bytedance, said in a statement released early Friday morning.

TikTok's statement comes a day after two senior members of the U.S. Congress requested an official investigation into the app to see if it poses "national security risks" to the U.S.

Censorship and data privacy have become hot-button issues between the U.S. and China in recent months, with Washington accusing Chinese tech giant Huawei of spying, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence recently slamming Nike and the NBA for not defying Beijing over Hong Kong. 

Democrat Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who both sit on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to the director of national intelligence on Wednesday outlining their concerns.

"With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore," they wrote.

"Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings."

The lawmakers questioned TikTok's data-collection practices, saying the app collects a wide range of data, including information about a user's location.

TikTok officials responded that all U.S. users' data is stored within the country.

"Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law," company officials wrote in the statement. They also denied any suggestion that the user data might be handed over to the Chinese authorities following the laws of China.

The company also denied suggestions by the senators that it abides by Chinese censorship regulations by restricting videos on sensitive political topics, such as the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

"TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China ... We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government." 

TikTok added that it does not operate in China and does not have any intention to do so in the future, despite being owned by a Chinese company.

The company also said the content seen by U.S. users is moderated by TikTok's U.S. moderation team based in California.

It's not the first time the U.S. politicians have taken an interest in the short-video platform.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, called on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, CFIUS, to investigate ByteDance's 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, the video app it later renamed TikTok, out of concern it was "censoring content" to curry favor with Beijing, Nikkei Asian Review previously reported.

TikTok, which provides users a feed of short videos, has become wildly popular among teenagers around the world and is arguably the first Chinese-owned consumer app to go mainstream in the U.S. American social media giants, namely Facebook, increasingly see it as a threat.

In a speech delivered at Georgetown University last week, Mark Zuckerberg compared Facebook's approach to moderating content with TikTok.

"While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections," he said, "on TikTok, the Chinese app, mentions of these same protests are censored, even here in the U.S. Is that the internet that we want?"

Zuckerberg, however, has also came under fire for content and privacy issues at Facebook. He was grilled by the U.S. lawmakers for near six hours on Wednesday who questioned him on everything from false advertisements on the platform and their impact on elections to its handling of user data.

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