TikTok seeks to join tech fight against online terrorism

TikTok seeks to join tech fight against online terrorism
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TikTok, the massively popular Chinese-owned social media app that has recently attracted national security concerns from top lawmakers, is seeking to join the consortium of U.S. tech companies tasked with countering online terrorism and extremism. 

A source familiar with the effort told The Hill that TikTok is working to become an official member of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) alongside top tech firms including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

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But TikTok's efforts have largely been rebuked so far, and the GIFCT has not granted TikTok — one of the largest and fastest-growing social media platforms in the world — a formal membership amid concerns about its data collection and censorship practices.

A GIFCT official told The Hill that the forum does not comment on whether particular companies have sought membership, but they pointed out that as of right now, only Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Dropbox, Amazon, LinkedIn and WhatsApp are formal members of the consortium.

The source familiar with TikTok's efforts said it is working towards full membership in order gain "access to all of [the GIFCT's] tools" for fighting online terrorism and is "making progress" with the group.

At the end of September, the GIFCT announced it will become into an independent group with a dedicated staff to coordinate the takedown of extremist content across the world's top platforms. 

The announcement marked a win for extremism and counterterrorism experts, who had accused the founding social media companies of failing to dedicate adequate resources to the GIFCT, a loose effort that was formed in 2017 as the companies faced intensifying criticism over discoveries that al Qaeda and ISIS were using their platforms to recruit and radicalize mostly young, disenfranchised men. 

The new GIFCT will be led by an independent executive director, who will engage with an operational board and advisory committee, and multiple working groups consisting of an array of experts from across the industry, the companies announced in September. 

A larger pool of companies have access to the GIFCT's "hash-sharing" database, which allows the companies to share the digital footprints of terrorist content they identify. Most of the 13 companies allowed access to the database — including Verizon Media, Instagram and Cloudinary — are U.S.-based, and none of them are Chinese-owned. 

A source familiar with TikTok's efforts told The Hill that it has been working with the GIFCT since the beginning of the year on "hashing" related efforts, but the GIFCT spokesperson noted TikTok is not one of the companies listed as a participant in the hash-sharing consortium. 

Over the past several weeks, TikTok has drawn enormous scrutiny from policymakers and government officials over its ties to the Chinese government. The video-sharing app, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, is one of the first major social media platforms with a foothold in the U.S. to emerge from China over the past several years. Facebook has named it as a major competitor during congressional testimony. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate Democrats introduce legislation to probe politicization of pandemic response Schumer interrupted during live briefing by heckler: 'Stop lying to the people' Jacobin editor: Primarying Schumer would force him to fight Trump's SCOTUS nominee MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP brushes back charges of hypocrisy in Supreme Court fight Trump uses bin Laden raid to attack Biden Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ark.) last month asked the intelligence community to look into whether TikTok censors its users and how it's allowed to use the vast array of U.S. user data it collects.

"Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party," Schumer and Cotton wrote.

Last week, Reuters and The New York Times reported that a U.S. government committee has launched a national security review of TikTok's Chinese parent company ByteDance. 

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency body that deals with national security concerns stemming from transactions involving overseas companies, is reviewing Bytedance’s acquisition of U.S. app Musical.ly, Reuters reported. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Democrats step up hardball tactics as Supreme Court fight heats up Press: Notorious RBG vs Notorious GOP MORE (R-Fla.) had called for the review just a few weeks prior to the report.

TikTok, which hosts short-form videos created by users, has skyrocketed in American markets over the past six months, and remained the top downloaded app for Apple and Google for months.

The 2-year-old app was downloaded 663 million times in 2018. 

In a blog post last month, TikTok denied lawmakers' allegations that it operates at the behest of the Chinese government. 

"TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China," TikTok wrote. "We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period."  

"We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future," TikTok added.

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But industry watchers have described TikTok as more secretive than its U.S. competitors. The GIFCT requires its member companies to maintain public policies barring terrorist content and offer "regular, public data transparency." 

Twitter and Facebook, for example, offer regularly transparency reports disclosing how much terrorist content they take down each year. But TikTok, which has been ramping up its content moderation and government affairs teams over the past six months, has not offered as much insight into its data practices or views on human rights. Previous reports have indicated that, until May of this year, TikTok censored content that mentioned topics the Chinese government does not support.  

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenate GOP faces pivotal moment on pick for Supreme Court Renewed focus on Trump's Supreme Court list after Ginsburg's death What Facebook's planned change to its terms of service means for the Section 230 debate MORE (R-Mo.) asked TikTok to send a representative to testify at a congressional hearing this Tuesday but the company has so far declined.

"[TikTok], this is a mistake," Hawley tweeted on Monday. "Come and testify tomorrow about your ties to Communist Chinese Party. I’ll save a place for you." 

A TikTok official told The Hill the company was "unable to provide a witness who would be able to contribute to a substantive discussion" on such "short notice." 

"We remain committed to working productively with Congress as it looks at how to secure the data of American users, protect their privacy, promote free expression, ensure competition and choice among internet platforms, and preserve U.S. national security interests," the person said.