Nov 7, 2020 - Technology

TikTok executive says app used to censor content critical of China

Illustration of hands fighting over the Tik Tok logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A TikTok executive said at a U.K. parliamentary hearing this week that the video-sharing platform previously censored content that was critical of China, especially videos about Uighur Muslims being detained in Xinjiang.

What they're saying: "At that time we took a decision [...] to not allow conflict on the platform, and so there was some incidents where content was not allowed on the platform, specifically with regard to the Uighur situation," Elizabeth Kanter, the company's U.K. director of public policy, said.

Yes, but: TikTok says that's no longer the case. "If you ... search for the term 'Uighur' on the TikTok app, you can find plenty of content about the Uighurs. There's plenty of content that's critical of China," Kanter said of its currently library.

  • "We do not in any way, shape, or form censor content or moderate in a way that would be favorable to China. You are right to say that those were a couple of years ago the content moderation guidelines, but they're absolutely not our policy now," she said.
  • Kanter did not specify when the rule changed, stating it's been "at least over a year."

The latest: Kanter clarified that she misspoke in reference to Uighurs, noting: "During the course of [Thursday's] hearing, I made an incorrect statement in response to a specific line of questioning about an outdated content policy."

  • "TikTok has previously acknowledged that in our very early days, we took a blunt approach to moderating content that promoted conflict, but we've also said we recognised this was the wrong approach and eliminated it. However, we want to be absolutely clear that even in those early policies, there was never a policy around the Uighur community, which is where I misspoke."

Between the lines: The Trump administration has been seeking to force a sale of, or block, the Chinese-owned service, saying it was a national security threat. It also moved to effectively ban the service from operating in the U.S. as of Nov. 12, a move which was put on hold at the end of October.

  • TikTok has twice been spared a ban in the U.S., though the administration continues to fight in court to enforce restrictions on the company.

Our thought bubble: As Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimiam notes, this belated admission from Kanter isn't likely to build trust between TikTok and the Americans who use it.

Go deeper: The TikTok view from China

Editor's note: This story has been update with a clarified statement from Elizabeth Kanter.

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