It’s hard to name another company that has so ruffled the feathers of the elite in the world's three biggest nations— India, the US, and China. Such controversy might be expected from well-established, data-driven tech giants like Google and Facebook, but TikTok ($BYTEDANCE) was released only in 2016, and caters mainly to teenagers with relatively little political clout. Nonetheless, TikTok’s and parent company Bytedance’s connections to Beijing have put them in the spotlight, and thrown into question their future in their two biggest markets, India and the US. (China uses a different, more controlled version of the app called ‘Dǒuyīn’)
TikTok is in the middle of an especially tense few weeks, as geopolitical tensions heighten within and between the countries where the app is most popular. The Indian government announced a national ban on TikTok in late June, after escalations in hostility with Chinese forces at their shared border. On July 10, TikTok chose to quickly flee Hong Kong, as China imposed new monitoring and security laws that placed the city behind the so-called “Great Firewall of China.”
Finally, President Trump and his famously hawkish Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made strong intimations over the July 11-13 weekend that they were considering all possibilities in regulating TikTok, including banning the app completely.
As this geopolitical confusion unfolded, TikTok released a transparency report on July 9 regarding its content moderation and participation with government entities over the last year. In this rough climate, the report can be seen partially as a plea on the part of TikTok’s executives to the governments in question. But look! We did everything you asked of us!
The report reveals just how compliant TikTok was with requests from government officers and security agencies, as well as some other metrics that are most interesting when broken down with each country’s specific concerns in mind.
- In the second half of 2019, about 49 million videos were removed from TikTok for violating content policies.
- TikTok’s systems proactively caught and removed 98.2% of those videos before a user reported them. Out of the total videos removed, 89.4% were taken down before they were viewed.
- Percentage of copyright infringement complaints where content was taken down: 82.6
- Bytedance’s founder announced last year he would increase the number of censor positions at TikTok from 6,000 to 10,000.
- 16.4 million TikTok videos banned
- 302 government requests for information about TikTok
TikTok removed about 16.4 million videos in India in the second half of 2016. That’s by far the most out of any country, more than the next six put together.
TikTok’s standing in India was shaky throughout last year. In April 2019, Indian courts banned the app on the grounds that it encouraged the spread of pornography and other illicit content. This decision was overturned the same month, but with an understanding that TikTok would work with the Indian government to make sure the app’s content was regulated. TikTok seems to have tried its best to meet this demand: in the next half of the year, 33.4% of all videos they removed originated in India.
The July 9, 2020 transparency report makes the point that 25.5% of videos banned from TikTok were removed because they violated policies on adult nudity and sexual activities. TikTok reported that this is the most common reason that videos were removed from their platform, a fact that will surely be a staple of their defense as they head back to the Indian court system.
At the end of June, TikTok was among the list of 59 Chinese-owned apps banned by the Indian government, which now cites data privacy concerns, not illicit subject matter, in their decision. Though TikTok will challenge the decision in court, it is unclear whether their content moderation initiative will be enough to keep them alive in what was once their biggest market.
Due to May clashes at the China-India border that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, relations are worse than they have been in decades. So bad, in fact, that the Indian government is confident it will be able to block Chinese companies from getting a court injunction against the ban.
- 4.5 million TikTok videos banned
- 100 government requests for information
In 2019, TikTok paid a 5.7 million dollar fine by the FTC for violating US child protection policies. In the second half of the year, when US government agencies asked for info from the company, they were granted access on 77.6% of such requests, according to Adweek.
Just as TikTok attempted to respond to Indian concerns about illicit content, TikTok seems to have put a lot of effort into strengthening and enforcing its minors’ safety policies to appease the US. “Out of an abundance of caution,” reads the transparency report, “24.8% of videos we removed violated our minor safety policies, which include content depicting harmful, dangerous, or illegal behavior by minors, like alcohol or drug use, as well as more serious content we take immediate action to remove.”
It might be fair to call this a mixed record, until recent events soured things further. As the US and China ramp up their commercial pissing contest, which the US often obscures in terms of national security issues, TikTok has found itself in many US politicians' sights. As is the case with the Indian government, TikTok’s past attempts to cooperate with the United States might not save it from the resurgent geopolitical obsession with Chinese firms.
On Fox News Sunday, Trump advisor Peter Navarro said he expected strong action from the President against TikTok. He added that the White House did not appreciate TikTok’s attempts to reframe the issue by hiring former Disney exec Kevin Mayer as CEO. Navarro called Mayer “an American puppet,” and said the strategy was misguided. Echoing this sentiment, a group of policy makers, led by Josh Hawley (R-MO) are looking to ban TikTok for federal employees. Hawley has also requested that Mayer sit for questioning about his ties to China in front of a congressional committee.
Feeling the pressure, Mayer and his advisors made the decision to pull out of Honk Kong last week. This came right as the Chinese government expanded its control over large tech companies in the city, drawing them in under the control of the Great Firewall. Mayer likely made this decision to buy some time and curry some favor in the coming fight for TikTok to remain in the United States. It seems ever more likely that companies which choose to come down on the American side of the pissing contest will pick up some points with Team Trump, or his equally China-averse challenger, Joe Biden. Either could have TikTok’s hide, if Mayer doesn’t play his cards right.