TikTok releases 'transparency report' amid scrutiny over Chinese ownership

The report was released this week amid calls for concern by some U.S. lawmakers about potential security risks from the Chinese-owned company.
Inside TikTok Creator's Lab Event
Attendees use their smartphones to take video clips during the TikTok Creator's Lab 2019 event hosted by Bytedance Ltd. in Tokyo on Feb. 16.Shiho Fukada / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By Phil Helsel

The short video app TikTok this week released its first "transparency report," which included the number of requests for user information it received from governments during the first half of 2019.

India led in the number of those requests from Jan. 1 to June 30, with 107 — which specified a total of 143 accounts. The company produced some information on close to half of those requests.

The United States came in second, with 79 total requests that specified 255 accounts. The company said 86 percent of those requests involved the production of some information.

"We take such requests extremely seriously, and closely review each request that we receive to determine whether, for example, the request adheres to the required legal process or the content violates a local law," Eric Ebenstein, TikTok's director of public policy, said in a statement Monday.

"TikTok is committed to assisting law enforcement in appropriate circumstances while at the same time respecting the privacy and rights of our users," he said.

The report was released as the U.S. Army, following the lead of the Navy and guidance from the Defense Department, banned TikTok from government-owned phones because of concerns about the app.

Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa, a spokeswoman for the Army, told Military.com in an article published this week that TikTok "is considered a cyber threat."

The United States also made six requests to take content down, and 11 such requests were made by India, according to the company.

Content was "removed or restricted" in one case as a result of the U.S. requests, but seven accounts were reported to have been removed or restricted. In response to India's requests, content was removed or restricted in four instances, and eight accounts were restricted or taken down.

The app, owned by the China-based tech company ByteDance, came under greater scrutiny in October when Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, sent a letter asking Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, to assess TikTok and other China-based companies for potential security risks.

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TikTok says that in the future it will regularly release such transparency reports and that a report covering the second half of 2019 should come out in the coming months.

TikTok's transparency report did not list any requests by the Chinese government.

ByteDance has said TikTok does not operate in China. It has said that it stores American users' data in the United States but that the company is still required to adhere to the laws of China, according to the letter from Schumer and Cotton.

The senators said in the letter that questions have been raised about potential censorship and that "TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party," such as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and references to the government's treatment of Uighurs, a minority group.