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TikTok CEO Denies Chinese Censorship, Says Company Still Drawing Up Content Policies

A person holds a smartphone with Tik Tok logo displayed, November 7, 2019. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

TikTok CEO Alex Zhu, in his first interview since taking over as head of the Chinese social-media platform, denied allegations from Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) that TikTok censored on the behalf of the Chinese government and shared user data with Beijing.

Earlier this month, Hawley — who has emerged as a prominent tech critic in conservative circles — cited a Washington Post article that TikTok complied with “China’s restrictive view of acceptable speech” during a Senate subcommittee hearing which Hawley chaired on Chinese threats to data.

“We don’t know what China can do with this kind of social data in aggregate, what it tells China about our society,” Hawley said of TikTok, which did not attend the hearing. “They can see who we talk to, what we talk about, where we congregate, what we capture on video. Not all of TikTok’s users are just kids, some work in government or for the military, others are celebrities or work for major American companies in positions of influence. What does it mean for China to have a window into such users’ social lives? Why would we leave that window open?”

In his interview with The New York Times, Zhu dismissed Hawley’s claims.

“The data of TikTok is only being used by TikTok for TikTok users,” he said. When asked if Chinese President Xi Jinping personally asked him to take down a video or hand over user data, Zhu replied ““I would turn him down.”

The TikTok CEO said he was “optimistic” that the platform would succeed despite the increased scrutiny, but admitted that the company is still drawing up its content policies.

“Today, we are lucky,” he said, “because users perceive TikTok as a platform for memes, for lip-syncing, for dancing, for fashion, for animals — but not so much for political discussion. For political content that still aligns with this creative and joyful experience, I don’t see why we should control it.”

Hawley introduced a new bill on Monday that targeted TikTok. Titled the “National Security and Personal Data Protection Act,” Hawley’s bill cites national security to prohibit American and Chinese companies from transferring user data or encryption keys to China.

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