TikTok hires legal experts for content moderation amid censorship concerns

The popular social media platform has hired global law firm K&L Gates LLP, including two former US Congressmen, in an effort to ramp up its moderation policies after Senator Marco Rubio questioned the legitimacy of TikTok’s Chinese owner's acquisition of the now-defunct Musical.ly.
Written by Cyrus Lee, Contributor
Image: TikTok

Popular social media video app TikTok has hired global law firm K&L Gates LLP, including two former US congressmen Bart Gordon and Jeff Denham, in a bid to further strengthen the platform's moderation policies and overall transparency, according to an open letter posted on its website on Tuesday.

The external hires, in collaboration with TikTok's internal US management team, will review the company's content moderation policies across a wide range of topics, including child safety, hate speech, misinformation, bullying, and other potential issues, according to the open letter written by Vanessa Pappas, TikTok's US general manager.

The new measures also aim to "further increase transparency around our content moderation policies and the practices we employ to protect our community," and "build out an even deeper bench of internal leaders so that we are well prepared to tackle the challenges that our continued rapid expansion will bring," the letter said.

TikTok's hiring of legal experts comes after Senator Marco Rubio claimed that the popular app, owned by Chinese technology giant Beijing ByteDance Technology, has been trying to censor content in the United States in order to be in line with the interests of the Chinese government, Reuters reported earlier this month.

Chinese apps "are increasingly being used to censor content and silence open discussion on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Government and Communist Party," Rubio said, who added that China is "using these apps to advance their foreign policy and globally suppress freedom of speech, expression, and other freedoms that we as Americans so deeply cherish," according to the report.

Rubio also demanded a review of the 2017 acquisition made by ByteDance when it purchased its competitor Musical.ly for nearly $1 billion. Less than a year after the deal was made, in August 2018, ByteDance scrubbed the Musical.ly brand and revamped it into the TikTok app.

Owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, one of the world's most valuable tech unicorns, the social media video app known as Douyin in China and TikTok outside its home market, has gathered a total of 1 billion monthly active users across the world as of January this year, Douyin president Zhang Nan announced in June.

TikTok, which was launched in the international market in September 2017, has become one of the most popular social media apps across many overseas markets, including Southeast Asia and India, Japan, and North America.

ByteDance has always separated the content for its domestic Douyin and the international TikTok in order to avoid any potential breaches of China's internet controls. Domestic Chinese users who register the app with a local phone number can only view local content which can be censored by the Chinese government, while foreigners using the international version are less likely to be subject to censorship as it is run independently from the Chinese team. 

TikTok expects the hiring moves will help "maintain the app experience users expect while providing them the protections they deserve". The company will continue to provide updates and transparency in the months and years ahead, according to the open letter.

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