TikTok's chief cancels planned meetings with US senators amid concerns over privacy and app's ties to China

pleskin@businessinsider.com (Paige Leskin)
alex zhu tiktok

Greylock Partners/YouTube

TikTok has canceled a series of meetings on Capitol Hill this week that would have put the app's chief in front of US lawmakers who have voiced concerns over the viral video app's ties to China, as well as its censorship and privacy practices.

The planned trip to Washington, D.C., was supposed to be the first time that TikTok's chief, Alex Zhu, would come face-to-face with the lawmakers who had been most critical of the platform. However, a TikTok spokesperson told Business Insider that these meetings with high-powered US senators have been moved to "after the holidays," although it's not clear whether another date for these meetings has been scheduled.

"TikTok has no higher priority than ensuring Congress Members' questions are addressed fully and transparently," TikTok said in a statement to Business Insider. "To ensure these conversations are as productive as possible, we're postponing these meetings until after the holidays."

The Washington Post reported last week that Zhu was planning to meet with Republican Sens. Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio while in town. TikTok was also expected to meet with Sen. Marsha Blackburn over concerns about children's data and privacy on the app, as Axios reported.

However, CNBC reported that Rubio had declined a meeting with Zhu, and a spokesperson for Cotton told Business Insider last week that the senator wasn't meeting with Zhu either.

TikTok has become an oft-discussed target among those in the US government, amid a national security investigation and questions about the relationship between the platform and its China-based parent company, ByteDance. TikTok has consistently defended itself by asserting that none of its moderators are based in China, and that no "foreign government" asks the platform to censor content.

Just last month, TikTok was asked to testify at a Congressional hearing on tech companies' relationships with China, but the company declined to send anyone. Hawley, who organized the hearing, was quick to voice his disapproval at the "empty seat treatment."

Hawley took to Twitter on Tuesday night to share that TikTok had canceled its meeting with him, and said the platform is "not willing to answer questions."

 

TikTok has faced allegations that it censors "culturally problematic" and political content that could be seen as offensive to the Chinese government, according to former employees' reports to The Washington Post and documents obtained by The Guardian and the German blog Netzpolitik. When pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong earlier this year, TikTok was curiously devoid of any hints of unrest, and videos instead documented a prettier picture.

More recently, a user from New Jersey had her account suspended after she went viral for using her videos, disguised as makeup tutorials, to speak about China's treatment of Muslims. TikTok has since issued an apology, but blamed the removal of her anti-China videos from TikTok on "a human moderation error."

Others have raised concerns that the ties between China and TikTok puts the privacy of users' data at risk. A class-action lawsuit was recently filed in California by a college student who alleges that her private information and unpublished content was accessed by TikTok without her permission and stored on servers in China. TikTok settled another lawsuit last week related to children's privacy, paying out $1.1 million related to allegations that the app collected the information of children under 13 without their parents' consent.

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