Despite repeatedly declining to testify in front of Congress – which may partly have contributed to the situation that has seen TikTok forced to give away 20% of its company to Oracle and Walmart in the oddest business deal of the year – TikTok was quizzed by politicians in the UK.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, a collection of politicians akin to a UK version of a Congressional hearing, questioned Theo Bertram, TikTok’s European head of public policy, for more than 90 minutes on September 22.
There was a lot of heat, some light – and plenty of light relief, as the politicians showed they struggled to understand some key elements of the app and its technology. Here’s what we learned.
Where is TikTok storing UK user data? In response to @DamianGreen, TikTok responded that data was stored in the US and Singapore.
We were questioning TikTok as part of our 'Online Harms & the Ethics of Data' inquiry.
Watch in full: https://t.co/wojWToSyM6 pic.twitter.com/JdDIDu5QXm
— Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (@CommonsDCMS) September 22, 2020
1.6 million videos are posted on TikTok in the UK alone every day
In response to questioning from politicians, Bertram told the committee that in the first six months of 2020, TikTok users in the UK posted more than 300 million videos to the app – equating to 1.6 million every single day.
That’s a huge number, though perhaps not surprising: we know from leaked information published by Business Insider that an estimated five million videos are uploaded every hour worldwide.
Nearly half of TikTok’s UK employees are content moderators
The app published its transparency report just two hours before the hearing began, showing that 105 million videos were taken down from the platform in the first six months of 2020 for violating its policies.
That’s done through a combination of machine learning and human moderation – and we learned for the first time that 363 content moderators are employed by TikTok in the UK alone, out of 800 total employees.
One MP may have inadvertently admitted to looking at
Steve Brine, MP for Winchester, had an interesting line of questioning for Bertram. “Flicking through the TikTok feed this morning before the session, you know, it’s what my mother would have called ‘trashy’,” he said.
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“There’s lots of content where mother and daughter… pushing their tushy, if you know what I mean. There’s lots of sexualised content in a clever way. There’s people jumping off piers into the water. Are we not better than that as a society?” Bertram didn’t point out that the videos served on TikTok’s For You page are determined by a user’s past engagement with similar videos.
MPs don’t know the difference between MAC addresses and Mac computers
“TikTok has been accused of accessing information on people’s Apple Macs, on their iPads, on their iPhones,” began one question from another MP, 62-year-old Clive Efford.
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“I think the thing you’re referring to is the MAC, which is not actually the Apple Mac,” Bertram kindly corrected in response. “MAC is a feature that allows you to identify the device.”
Bertram doesn’t always like the laws TikTok has to follow
Much of the MPs’ questioning focused on whether Bertram approved of China’s state policies towards Uyghur Muslims, who are oppressed and brutalised by the Chinese state, or its censorship of student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The questions were designed to identify the issue with TikTok’s Chinese roots. But more interestingly, Bertram also admitted that the requirement to follow laws elsewhere gives him pause. Asked by John Nicholson MP about whether he was happy TikTok acceded to requests to take down LGBTQ+ content in Russia, Bertram said he agreed. “
The Russian law is terrible,” he said. “I think our communities does, too, and they strongly voice that on the platform. But we unfortunately have to comply with legal requests in the countries we operate.”