The government doesn’t like to be criticized, so it has engaged in several efforts to censor speech by people arguing for less censorship and a better government. These efforts have been greeted with some creative responses by citizens, but the government flips the internet kill switch on and off as needed, denying citizens access to something most people around the world consider to be as essential as tap water.
As if that weren’t enough to keep speech in line, American companies and… um… sportsball concerns have cooperated with censorship efforts to appease the Chinese government with the end goal of accessing China’s billion-strong user base.
The crackdown on speech is far more pronounced in one region of the country, where the government has targeted certain citizens -- more than one million Uighur Muslims -- with ever-increasing censorship, along with the killings and disappearings China has historically deployed against those on its expansive persona non grata lists.
A number of US companies have helped the Chinese government oppress Uighur Muslims. Unsurprisingly, a Chinese company is doing the same thing. TikTok, the social media upstart that has irrationally angered the Trump administration, has admitted its contribution to the government’s persecution of its least favored citizens. This includes efforts made by TikTok’s moderation teams located in other countries where one would (very hopefully) assume the Chinese government’s demands are free to be ignored. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be 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."
According to TikTok’s UK director, it’s policy of China-appeasing censorship in other nations is no longer a thing. But the explanation isn’t very convincing.
"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.
Supposedly, things are better now. All you have to do is trust TikTok’s UK rep and your own eyes, I guess.
"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."
Sounds good. Or, at least, better. But requests for more detail by the UK government were greeted with vague reassurances that the new, more permissive policy has been in place "for at least over a year," but that as recently as "a couple of years ago," the UK wing of TikTok was still acting as an extension of the Chinese government.
ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has attempted to distance itself from the Chinese government and its censorship for a few years now. It operates a completely different social media service in China, putting a firewall between users located elsewhere and the Great Firewall the Chinese government has erected. But its home base is problematic. It’s impossible to please both the Chinese government and its non-Chinese users who expect their content to be exempt from China’s censorship efforts. The end result is, far too often, something that errs on the side of the Chinese government’s demands.
TikTok isn’t the security threat the Trump administration has frequently imagined it to be. (Well, it’s no more of a threat to users and their personal info than several American companies…) But it is still a problem for users located outside of China, who expect their interactions to be unmolested by laws they’re not obligated to follow.
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