TikTok Transparency Report: Zero Takedown Requests from China

Sam Reynolds

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Chinese authorities have yet to request that TikTok remove content from its platform, or ask for information about a specific user, according to a recently released transparency report published by the company.

According to the report, which covers the first half of 2019, the vast majority of requests came from India and the United States. In the case of India, there were 107 requests pertaining to 143 accounts and TikTok gave authorities in the country data on 47% of the requests. For the US, there were 79 requests related to 255 accounts, and TikTok provided authorities with details on 86% of their requests.

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“TikTok is committed to assisting law enforcement in appropriate circumstances while at the same time respecting the privacy and rights of our users,” Eric Ebenstein, TikTok’s head of public policy, wrote in a blog post. "In balancing our responsibilities to law enforcement with our respect for the privacy of our users, we respond only to legally valid requests and only with the requisite amount of information needed."

Absent from this list is China, but it should be noted that TikTok doesn't operate in China per se; the Chinese version of the app is called Douyin and is run as a separate organization. TikTok takes care to note in its report that "we did not receive any requests from countries other than those listed in the chart below."

Despite the duality of TikTok, with its separate versions for China and for those abroad, there are still concerns that it could still be a conduit for Beijing's soft power -- blocking messages and imagery that are harmful to China's interests. For example, in September, a report from The Washington Post alleged TikTok was censoring content related to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. While a search of the terms "Hong Kong" on Twitter, or other relevant hashtags, would bring up a library of material about the protests this isn't the case on TikTok.

TikTok's parent, ByteDance, appears to be aware of the risks to privacy that operating in China poses. The company is said to be looking at Singapore, Dublin, and London as potential new corporate homes. ByteDance also established an Irish subsidiary, TikTok Technology Ltd, last year and is actively recruiting for a number of roles in Dublin.

During the past few months, it has been on a PR offensive to help build confidence in its ability to protect user data. The head of TikTok, Alex Zhu, recently stated in an interview that it would not delete user videos at the request of China and non-Chinese data was stored in either Singapore or the US.

"Users perceive TikTok as a platform for memes, for lip-syncing, for dancing, for fashion, for animals — but not so much for political discussion,” Zhu is quoted as saying. “For political content that still aligns with this creative and joyful experience, I don’t see why we should control it.”

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal  (in November) a ByteDance source said: "The Chinese government has never asked us to provide access to any TikTok US user data, and we would not do so if asked."

TikTok says it will release another transparency report, covering the second half of the year, in the coming months.

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