Yesterday, TikTok published its first transparency report showing which countries submitted requests for the removal of content and access to user data. China is notably absent from the report— the Chinese tech giant ByteDance-owned video-sharing app says it did not receive a single request from the Chinese Communist Party in the first half of 2019.
The news comes to the social media company after a tough year, which faced rising criticism over its relationship with China. A study from The Washington Post reported in September that TikTok blocked material linked to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, possibly to please the Chinese government. The claims were refuted by TikTok, but it was not enough to deter US senators from pressing for a national security investigation.
The U.S. Foreign Investment Committee (CFIUS) then reached out to ByteDance with national security concerns that threatened the application’s life. Since CFIUS oversees mergers and acquisitions with US firms, its investigation raised concerns that ByteDance might be forced to sell TikTok. Previously, the U.S. military went so far as to ban troops from using the device, saying it was a “cyber threat.”
The study by TikTok reveals that U.S. law enforcement agencies partnered with TikTok to gain access to user data and remove information that violates U.S. laws. TikTok has submitted 79 user data requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies over the past year, along with six content removal requests. The company fulfilled 86 per cent of user data requests and limited or blocked seven content-related requests for takedown accounts.
“TikTok is committed to supporting law enforcement in appropriate circumstances while protecting our users ‘ privacy and rights,” Eric Ebenstein, head of public policy at TikTok, wrote in a blog post. The United States submitted the second-highest number of total requests, beat out only by India, which submitted 107 user data requests and 11 content removal requests. That’s probably because in both countries TikTok is wildly popular. It might also clarify why China is not in the survey, as there is no activity of the device. The Chinese version of the software is called Douyin, operating as a separate organization.
Nevertheless, the news is still somewhat surprising given China’s tendency to censor content. A study on internet freedom around the world, published by Freedom House, a watchdog group, found that China is the “worse abuser of internet freedom” in the world because of its policies of surveillance and monitoring.
Such techniques are not simply limited to the people of China. The Verge reported in November that Chinese Americans had their WeChat accounts blocked or limited, even to other Americans, for talking about the Hong Kong elections.