“The company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they're watching and what they share with each other,” Hawley said at a Senate Judiciary subcommitee hearing.
He directed his ire at an empty chair reserved for TikTok, which declined to send a representative. “TikTok claims they don't store American user data in China," he said. "That's nice, but all it takes is one knock on the door of their parent company based in China from a Communist Party official.”
TikTok is emerging as one of the most formidable threats in years to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But its Achilles' heel could be new regulatory pressure in Washington as lawmakers step up their criticism of the company -- and the U.S. government opens a national security review of its practices.
Hawley’s remarks underscore that lawmakers aren’t buying TikTok’s promises that the company is operating independently of the Chinese government -- and does not censor content that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive in Beijing. “TikTok claims they don’t take direction from China,” Hawley said at the hearing. “They claim they don’t censor. … But that’s not what former employees of TikTok say.”
My colleagues Drew Harwell and Tony Romm reported yesterday that former employees say they felt pressured to satisfy ByteDance by censoring videos, including of heated debates or political discussions widely seen across the Internet. This fueled concerns the app is effectively enforcing China's restrictive view of acceptable speech even though the company says it moved its content moderation leadership to the United States earlier this year.
TikTok went on the defensive yesterday, releasing a blog post outlining how American user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore and it has localized its content moderation guidelines. “TikTok team, senior staff and myself understand the importance of building a close and transparent working relationship with regulators and lawmakers," Vanessa Pappas, TikTok U.S. general manager, wrote in a statement. “This will be increasingly important during the upcoming U.S. election season.”
The stakes for the company in Washington are high. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a cross-government group that reviews foreign transactions involving U.S. companies, is investigating the 2017 deal in which ByteDance bought the popular karaoke app, Musical.ly, and later rebranded it as TikTok. The panel has the authority to retroactively terminate deals, implement fines or push corporate changes.
Tech experts tell my colleagues that the surveillance and censorship concerns that lawmakers have are legitimate, especially because the app has grown significantly among young users.
The company “is operating under a political censorship regime,” Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former chief security officer at Facebook, told my colleagues. “The Chinese government has no problem telling [its companies] where they should come down in political debates.”
Klon Kitchen, the tech policy lead at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, told Hawley at the hearing there's no way to ensure the company isn't serving as a “Trojan horse” and providing data to the Chinese government.
Given the current legal regime in China, TikTok's parent would be required to hand over data that the Chinese government requests. Anyone who thinks they wouldn't be required to do so, he said, has "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the government in Beijing works."
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: About 100 Facebook partners may have wrongly accessed the names and profile photos of users in certain groups, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The announcement is the just the latest privacy gaffe acknowledged by Facebook and probably will spark lawmaker criticism.
Facebook did not disclose how many users were affected or which partners accessed the data, but at least 11 partners did so in the past 60 days, Tony reports. Facebook agreed to a $5 billion fine as part of a settlement with federal regulators that also required the company to improve its privacy practices in July.
“Although we’ve seen no evidence of abuse, we will ask them to delete any member data they may have retained and we will conduct audits to confirm that it has been deleted,” Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, the director of platform partnerships at Facebook, said in the blog post. The company did not respond for requests for comment.
NIBBLES: 2020 Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren joined a chorus of critics who say that Twitter's new ban on political advertising creates a loophole for corporations to spread misinformation about political issues while banning activist groups. She specifically called out an ad from ExxonMobil denying climate science, first flagged by journalist Emily Atkin.
The tweet prompted a response from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who said that Twitter has not yet finalized its new ban on political advertising and will take the Massachusetts senator’s suggestions into consideration.
Twitter's ban on political ads, a sharp rebuke to rival Facebook's decision to not fact-check political ads, drew early praise. But many advocates have criticized it for being overly broad.
Facebook may be reconsidering elements of its advertising business under public pressure as well, Dylan Byers at NBC News reports. While Facebook maintains a hardened stance toward not censoring political ads, the company may consider doing away with the feature that allows politicians to target their ads to specific audiences based on characteristics including age, race and location, said sources at Facebook who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
BYTES: Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) want to create a new federal agency to oversee how tech companies collect and monetize user data, they announced yesterday. The Online Privacy Act, the latest offering by lawmakers seeking to rein in big tech, would also give users the power to access, correct and delete their own data.
The legislation would also create baseline standards requiring companies to get consent before selling user data and not use data for practices that violate civil rights, such as discriminatory advertising.
The legislation's Digital Privacy Agency would have powers to fine companies that violate any part of the law $42,530 per incident, the rate for Federal Trade Commission fines. Companies must notify the agency of data breaches within 72 hours.
State attorneys general would also be empowered to bring civil actions for violations of the bill.
But the 132-page bill, which would also allow states to pass their own privacy legislation, probably will face opposition from Republicans who are bringing their own solutions to the table and want legislation that would preempt state laws.
— News from the public sector:
— Fiverr, a tech company that connects businesses with freelancers, is doubling down on services for political campaigns ahead of the 2020 Elections. The company told The Technology 202 exclusively today that it is launching a politics store with more than 100 services for politicians, including advertising and speechwriting.
The announcement highlights how tech services are playing a greater role in campaigns. Fiverr's offerings could be a boon particularly to down-ballot candidates or challengers who don't have the budgets to hire people with advertising or video skills for their campaigns and are seeking marketing support under a time crunch. The politics store's offerings will include freelancers specializing in banner ads, voice overs, website design and social media marketing.
“The marketing needs of political campaigns are massive, with both incumbents and first-time candidates working harder than ever to cut through the noise and connect with voters,” said Brent Messenger, vice president of public policy and community at Fiverr, in a statement. “To stay relevant and in touch in the always-on world of modern politics, campaigns need the support of talented people who are available on-demand.”
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing on reauthorizing the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.
- The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will host its annual Color of Surveillance conference on November 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a focus on the monitoring of poor and working people. You can register here.
- The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will host a hearing on “Hijacking our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans through Disinformation on Social Media” on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. EST.
The U.S. government launched a national security review of the Chinese parent company behind TikTok, a popular social-video app, on Nov. 1.