Marco Rubio calls for TikTok review over censorship claims

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AP Photo/Susan Walsh

TikTok owner ByteDance might find itself in legal trouble in the US over claims it's censoring criticism of China in other parts of the world. Senator Marco Rubio has sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to review ByteDance's acquisition of Musical.ly in light of the censorship allegations. He argued there was “ample & growing evidence” TikTok was silencing US material to honor Chinese government policies, effectively letting it “suppress freedom of speech” beyond its borders.

TikTok allegedly asked its moderators to pull mentions of topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet's calls for independence and other content that challenges the Chinese government's version of events. The service said it had retired the guidelines in May and that it had been using a “blunt approach” to minimizing drama on TikTok that included banning talk of all topics it deemed controversial, not just those from China.

An American TikTok spokeswoman talking to Reuters maintained that the Chinese government “does not request” censorship on its service. American data is stored in the US, she added, and China wouldn't have jurisdiction over TikTok since it isn't used there. Chinese residents instead use Douyin, a virtually identical app that is subject to Chinese censorship.

Whether or not there's merit to the claims, Rubio has momentum on his side. The US just added eight Chinese tech companies to its Entity List over their help with China's suppression of Muslim minorities. Moreover, Blizzard is facing a wave of criticism for banning an esports player that declared support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests. Combine that with earlier actions against Huawei and ByteDance may face distrust even if its current practices are above-board.

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