Chinese-owned app TikTok taps US professors for 'content advisory council'

After concerns raised by U.S. senators and others about allegations of censorship by TikTok on behalf of the Chinese government, the company has formed a team to address community concerns.

The team is made almost completely of American university employees and professors.

Popular social media app Tiktok has created an “advisory” council after many Americans have raised concerns over the app’s alleged censorship on behalf of the Chinese government. The majority of TikTok’s new Content Advisory Council consists of American professors. 

Its chair is a professor at George Washington University Law School. 

TikTok describes itself as the “leading destination for short-form mobile video.” Its stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy.” Some have questioned this mission statement as the app has come under fire for its ties to the Chinese communist government. 

In October, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a bipartisan letter to then Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire “formally requesting that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok.” 

The app is owned by Bytedance, a technology company based in Beijing that has been named the “world’s most valuable startup.” 

At the time Schumer tweeted that TikTok is “owned by a Beijing-based tech company.” Because of this, he pointed out “it’s required to adhere to Chinese law. That means it can be compelled to cooperate with intelligence work controlled by China’s Communist Party.” 

TikTok’s privacy policies and terms of services clearly outline how the app collects, shares, and uses users’ information. From collecting location data to obtaining information from third party sources, TikTok is transparent with at least some of its questionable actions. Part of TikTok’s terms of services states, “where required by law, we will share your information with law enforcement agencies or regulators and with third parties pursuant to a legally binding court order.”

[RELATED: Privacy advocates say consent ‘isn’t enough’ when it comes to NY student data regs]

Katie Everett, a Campus Correspondent for Campus Reform and Texas A&M student, echoed these concerns by telling Campus Reform  “This video app’s ties to China are concerning to me. Our government has been open about investigating the app yet so many young people still use it. I don’t want the Chinese government to have possession of my data.” 

As of November 2019,  there were 123.8 million downloads of TikTok in the United States. Americans have spent more than $23.1 million on TikTok’s virtual currency. 

Gunnar Baker, a sophomore at Texas A&M University, told Campus Reform that he uses TikTok “just for fun, [it’s] something to pass the time!” 

The app has also levied criticism as many have cited the Hong Kong protests as a victim of censorship by TikTok. The formation of the Content Advisory Council comes amid calls to address concerns surrounding the app, including censorship allegations. 

The majority of the current seven-member council is composed of university professors and employees.

A blog post authored by the General Manager of TikTok US, the members were chosen because they are “thought leaders who can help [TikTok] develop forward-looking policies that not only address the challenges of today, but also plan ahead for the next set of issues that [the]industry will face.” 

[RELATED: ANOTHER professor indicted over alleged secret ties to China]

At the helm, as chair of the Council, is Dawn Nunziato, a professor at George Washington University Law School and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project.  

She is joined by Hany Farid from the University of California, Berkeley Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and  School of Information, 

Vicki Harrison from the Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, Mary Anne Franks from the University of Miami Law School, and  Dan Schnur of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication and UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

The council includes only two experts who are not university employees, one of whom is Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Atkinson is, however, a board member for the University of Oregon’s Institute for Policy Research and Innovation, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation as well as the Brookings Institution

“I joined first and foremost because the issue of platform content moderation is interesting and important. I hope that not only can I contribute my insights on the issue, but that I will learn from the other council members,” Atkinson told Campus Reform.

The second Council member unaffiliated with academia is tech ethicist and founder of All Tech is Human, David Ryan Polgar

He told Campus Reform that his “career is focused on how we can build a better tech future, and working toward a healthy public discourse online is a major part of this. How we moderate content online is fascinating, complicated, and also incredibly important for any online community.” He looks forward to applying a “multidisciplinary approach to our tech/society issues.” 

[RELATED: ANOTHER professor indicted over alleged secret ties to China]

“Even military branches have blocked access to the app on government-issued phones, because of the Pentagon’s warning. If they can’t use it, we shouldn’t,” Everett told Campus Reform. More on that story can be found here

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @redwave1776 and Instagram: @enna.marie3519