A senior TikTok executive admitted the company used to censor content critical of China, 'specifically with regard to the Uighur situation'

REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonHong Kong protesters rally in support of Xinjiang Uighurs’ human rights.
  • TikTok used to censor content that was critical of China, a senior executive admitted Wednesday.
  • TikTok’s UK director of public policy, Elizabeth Kanter, made the censorship admission while appearing before a UK parliamentary committee on forced Uighur labour on Wednesday.
  • When asked whether the video-sharing app censors content critical of the Chinese government, Elizabeth Kanter said it used to – but does not any more.
  • The censorship extended to content about the plight of Uighur Muslims in China, she said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A TikTok executive admitted that the video-sharing app censored content likely to anger China in the past, but insisted that is no longer the case.

At a UK parliamentary committee hearing on Wednesday, Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s UK director of public policy, was asked by Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani whether the app had quashed content about the Uighur crisis in Xinjiang, where at least 1 million Uighur Muslims and other minorities have been detained in so-called “reeducation camps.”

Kanter said that although the current policy is not to censor content, that wasn’t always the case. “In the early days of TikTok there was some policies in place that took what we call a ‘blunt instrument’ to the way in which content was censored,” she said.

“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,” she said

“If you look at the platform now and 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,”

“We do not in any way, shape, or form censor content or moderate in a way that would be favourable 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.

When pressed by Ghani about exactly when the policy changed, Kanter was vague. “Those policies have not been our policies for at least over a year,” she said.

Ghani asked Kanter if TikTok would submit to an “algorithmic censor review,” so the committee could verify her claims. “I can invite you to come into our transparency centre and review our algorithm,” Kanter replied.

In September 2019, the Guardian obtained leaked documents detailing TikTok’s moderation guidelines, which forbade “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country,” and listed Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre as examples of content to take down. TikTok’s response at the time was that the guidelines in question were outdated, and had been retired in May 2019.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has made efforts to distance itself from China and any implication that it might have troubling links with the Chinese government.

TikTok’s ownership made headlines in August when the Trump administration declared the app would be banned unless it sold off its US operations over security concerns. TikTok decried the move as politically motivated, and said it does not share data with China.

The TikTok app itself does not operate in China, where a sister app called Douyin serves the market. During her testimony, Kanter said TikTok’s corporate structure meant the company was not beholden to China’s laws on data.

She said: “TikTok as a company that doesn’t operate in china would never provide data to any Chinese authority,” adding that China has “no jurisdiction” over TikTok’s data, which is stored on servers in the US with backups in Singapore.

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