Protect TikTok data from Chinese Communist Party, Human Rights Watch urges U.S. Congress

United States members of Congress should press the social media company TikTok to specify the steps it will take to ensure that the rights to information and privacy of its US-based users are protected, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to members of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives.

On March 23, 2023, the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing in which the chief executive officer of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, is slated to testify on the company’s policies and practices, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China’s one-party state.

“Social media companies have global reach and their products enable governments to exert influence beyond their borders,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US Congress should urge TikTok to enhance transparency over its algorithms and content moderation practices, and call for TikTok to disclose any communications with the Chinese authorities with regard to content removal, suppression, and promotion on its platform.”

All Chinese social media companies, private or public, are subjected to the control of the CCP. This creates an opportunity and mechanism for Chinese government censorship, surveillance, and propaganda that affect not only their users based in China, but those around the world, including in the US.

The CCP has a record of compelling domestic and foreign companies to toe the party line and punishing those who fail to sufficiently do so, Human Rights Watch said. The CCP is also responsible for Chinese authorities’ forcibly disappearing and detaining business executives under murky circumstances, a practice that has increased in recent years under President Xi Jinping.

The arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances put business leaders at grave risk and send a clear message to them and others that the price of opposing – or even appearing to oppose – the CCP can be extraordinarily steep. The secrecy also makes it difficult for any external observer, such as the US Congress, to assess the CCP’s objectives when it applies pressure on any given company.

TikTok has appeared to suppress content critical of the Chinese government in some instances. TikTok has said that they were either content moderation mistakes or that the guidelines under which content was removed had been replaced. TikTok has also been found to track journalists covering the company’s links to China by accessing their data on TikTok, allegations that the company later confirmed.

The US Congress should enact a comprehensive federal data protection law that regulates the collection, analysis, and sharing of personal data by companies, Human Rights Watch said. The law should require tech companies to practice data minimization for all users and to conduct human rights impact assessments and human rights due diligence for their operations. 

“The US government should adopt regulations that require transparency from all social media platforms,” Wang said. “They should disclose their content moderation policies and enforcement, including the content they have censored or suppressed because of their own policies or at the request of governments.”

Photo credit: Pexels/ cottonbro studio

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