1. Two separate BuzzFeed News investigations over the last couple of months revealed that TikTok, the world’s most popular app used by millions in the US, let the China-based ByteDance, its parent company, repeatedly access the data of the app’s American users.
2. Recordings of 80 company meetings obtained by BuzzFeed News showed that ByteDance’s engineers in China accessed American data between September 2021 and January 2022. “Everything is seen in China,” an employee in TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said in a meeting in September 2021.
3. Hours before the first investigation was published, TikTok announced that it had changed the “default storage location of US user data.” The company said that all “US user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. We will still use our US and Singapore data centers for backup, but as we continue our work we expect to delete US users’ private data from our own data centers and fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the US.” Oracle is an American database giant.
4. The investigation sparked fresh backlash against TikTok in the US. Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, asked Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores.
5. Nine Republican senators led by Marsha Blackburn also sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and demanded answers to questions about the privacy of American users. TikTok responded to the letter a couple of days later and admitted that ByteDance employees in China could access US users’ sensitive information. But the company said that it manages access to that information via a security team that is based in the US. It didn’t divulge more details about this access.
6. In response to the investigation, TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told BuzzFeed News: "We know we're among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data. That's why we hire experts in their fields, continually work to validate our security standards, and bring in reputable, independent third parties to test our defenses."
7. ByteDance used a popular news app that it owned called TopBuzz, which is now defunct, to prominently feature content that was favorable to China, a second BuzzFeed News investigation published earlier this week showed. TopBuzz also censored stories about the Chinese government, former employees claimed.
8. Three former employees told BuzzFeed News that TopBuzz staff occasionally pinned pro-Chinese content to the top of the app. Employees were also required to provide evidence to ByteDance that they were placing this content in the app through screenshots. “Let’s be real, this was not something you could say no to,” a source said. “If they don’t do it, somebody’s going to jail.”
9. Employees also claimed that they were asked to remove coverage of the Hong Kong protests and some content that showed openly LGBTQ people. The company also removed any articles about Chinese President Xi Jinping and any content that compared him to Winnie the Pooh, something that the Chinese government has a history of censoring.
10. Employees said that TopBuzz illegally scraped and republished content from mainstream newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, without its permission, and also videos from YouTube. A New York Times spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company had sent TopBuzz a cease-and-desist order for republishing content without permission. TopBuzz also published low-quality content to drive up engagement, including misinformation.
11. Six former employees told BuzzFeed News that the company also used the scraped data to train its algorithms to write news automatically without human journalists.
12. ByteDance spokesperson Billy Kenny issued the following statement to BuzzFeed News in an email: “The claim that TopBuzz — which was discontinued years ago — pinned pro-Chinese government content to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous. TopBuzz had over two dozen top tier US and UK media publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, which clearly did not find anything of concern when performing due diligence.” In response, a spokesperson for BuzzFeed Inc. said, “BuzzFeed, Inc. reaches its audience on all the major platforms — including those owned by ByteDance — while continuing to report on those platforms with rigorous journalism.”
13. The second investigation drew more angry reactions from lawmakers.
14. A day after the second investigation was published, TikTok released a blog post in which COO Vanessa Pappas announced that it would soon provide access to the “public and anonymized data” on the platform to “selected researchers” so that they could “assess content and trends” or conduct tests more easily. TikTok also plans to give these researchers a way to examine the platform’s moderation system and even upload their own content to use in their tests.
15. On the same day, Gizmodo obtained TikTok’s internal PR documents that showed how TikTok prepped its staff to answer tricky questions, including those about its links to China. “Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI,” one of the sentences in the documents reads.