TikTok’s leader, Alex Zhu, is set to pay his first known visit to Capitol Hill next week, meeting with lawmakers in an attempt to combat concerns that the company’s Chinese origins pose serious privacy, security and censorship risks.
The planned trip – confirmed by multiple people familiar with the matter but not authorised to discuss it on the record – reflects TikTok’s race to maintain the app’s explosion in popularity at a time when US-China relations are frayed and US officials are wary about the inroads Chinese companies are making into the technologies where the United States has long been the unchallenged leader.
The trip could bring Zhu, who is based in Shanghai, face-to-face with some of the app’s harshest critics. He has sought a meeting with Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, each of whom have questioned the app’s independence from Beijing.
Zhu is also expected to talk with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who has pressed TikTok to better protect children online, her office confirmed. Axios previously reported about Zhu’s plans to meet with Blackburn.
Before the visit, TikTok’s recently expanded team of lobbyists has made the rounds on Capitol Hill, seeking to stress that the social media app isn’t capitulating to censors in Beijing and protects users’ data from the Chinese government.
But they face heavy doubt from some lawmakers who say TikTok may have to separate itself completely from its parent, the Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, if it truly wants to win Washington’s trust.
“It’s difficult to see a way forward for TikTok without a complete separation from its Beijing-based owner,” Cotton said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The company declined to comment.
TikTok began the year as a gilded viral hitmaker, the rare new social app to best far-larger rivals, convince young users of its coolness and pierce the online mainstream. But it will end the year embattled on all sides: scrutinised by regulators, pummeled by competitors, and increasingly questioned by an audience worried over censorship and foreign control.
The app’s leaders stoked some lawmakers’ ire last month by skipping a congressional hearing probing its ties to China. And its parent company faces an investigation by an arm of the federal government that reviews foreign business deals for national-security concerns.
TikTok executives’ foray to stodgy Washington could seem surprisingly off-brand: The app has been downloaded on more than 1 billion phones around the world largely due to a stream of crafty, energetic and unconventionally funny videos that young audiences love to share.
But the growing doubts about its approach to content moderation and privacy have forced TikTok to travel the same well-trod path through Washington as its big tech predecessors, including Facebook and Google – a task made tougher due to its Chinese ties.
Suspicions of censorship on TikTok reached a fever pitch last month, when a 17-year-old high school student, Feroza Aziz, said her account had been suspended following her posting of a viral video drawing attention to China’s detention camps for Muslims in Xinjiang.
The company first attributed the penalty to a previous satirical video she had posted, then later acknowledged it had briefly taken down her video about China due to a “human-moderation error.” Still, the incident emboldened critics who remain unconvinced by TikTok’s assurances that US moderators, not Chinese censors, review American users’ videos.
Former TikTok employees told The Washington Post last month that their content-moderation decisions were largely in the hands of Chinese regulators, who demoted or removed content related to a wide range of US social and political topics.
Leaked content-moderation guidelines published by The Guardian and the German blog Netzpolitik also found that the company had urged moderators to suppress videos including political criticism or people with disabilities. TikTok said that the measures were a blunt and misguided approach to encouraging positivity and preventing bullying on the app, and that the company had updated its rules with “more nuanced” protections for speech.
The app’s parent company, ByteDance, has long professed its pride in being a tech conglomerate with Chinese roots. But it has also encountered resistance for hosting content that dissatisfied strict regulators in Beijing.
The Chinese government has blocked major Western websites across the world’s second-largest economy, and it has far-reaching powers to access data and compel obedience from companies working within its borders.
ByteDance last year shut down a popular comedy app that included jokes deemed inappropriate by Chinese censors. In a long apology, ByteDance’s billionaire founder, Zhang Yiming, vowed to fall in line with government demands, saying the company’s problems sprung from “deficiencies in education on the socialist core values and deviation from public opinion guidance.”
He also credited the Chinese Communist Party for the company’s massive growth, saying, “We profoundly understand that our rapid development was an opportunity afforded us by this great era.”
That close link to communist authority has become a major hurdle for TikTok’s attempts to prove its independence and sidestep government scrutiny in the US Lawmakers have suggested the company could pose a threat to Americans’ data privacy and free-speech rights.
The US government, through its Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, is examining the deal that birthed TikTok, ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly in 2017, for potential national-security risks. The government panel has sweeping authority and could, if it wanted to, push the Chinese company to sell TikTok, citing the threat of Americans’ personal data in foreign control.
Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in October urged US intelligence officials to determine whether the app posed a “potential counterintelligence threat.”
© The Washington Post 2019