Video-streaming app's Europe director Theo Bertram quizzed by British MPs over company policies
By Umberto Bacchi
Sept 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - TikTok has apologised for suppressing LGBT+ content in the past, with a director telling British lawmakers on Tuesday that the company now removed LGBT+ images only when required to do so by law enforcement agencies.
The video streaming app came under fire last year over reports it censored depictions of homosexuality, such as two men kissing or holding hands, and artificially prevented posts from LGBT+ users from going viral in some countries.
"I'm really sorry, we really got that wrong," TikTok's director of public policy in Europe the Middle East and Africa, Theo Bertram, told a British parliamentary committee referring to the practice of curtailing the reach of some posts.
Bertram said viewership of some LGBT+ videos, as well as posts from disabled or plus size users, was deliberately limited in a bid to reduce bullying on the platform.
"That was a terrible idea," he told the sub-committee on online harms and disinformation, adding the policy had since been changed.
TikTok, which boasts hundreds of millions of users worldwide, is widely used by young LGBT+ people to share niche jokes, find a date, and swap advice and stories about traumatic experiences such as being forced into conversion therapy.
Speaking about the removal of LGBT+ content, Bertram said the company would do so only upon receiving a specific request from law enforcement agencies in countries, like Russia, where there were laws banning the dissemination of LGBT+ materials.
"I think the Russian law is terrible and our community does too ... But unfortunately we have to comply with legal requests in the countries that we operate," he said.
Russia adopted a so-called "gay propaganda" law in 2013, which makes illegal any event or act regarded by the authorities as an attempt to promote homosexuality to minors.
Separately on Tuesday, TikTok said it had removed over 104 million videos from its platform globally in the first half of the year for violating its terms of service.
The company owned by China's ByteDance and at the centre of a political battle between Washington and Beijing, was also criticised earlier this month for suppressing LGBT+ related hashtags in some countries.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think-tank found the Russian, Estonian, Bosnian, and Arabic version of some terms like "gay" and "I am a lesbian" were "shadowbanned" - meaning searches would yield no results.
Responding to the report, TikTok said some hashtags had been restricted to comply with local laws, while others because they were primarily used for searching pornographic content.
Some compound phrases in English and Arabic had been moderated by mistake, but the issue had been solved, it added.
Asked if the company was still restricting the prevalence of LGBT+ hashtags in some countries, and particularly in Russia, Bertram said he did not think that was the case.
"Not as far as I'm aware, you can create any content on our platform, there is no restrictions," he said, adding he was unsure as to what the company would do if requested to take down an hashtag by law enforcement agency.
"I don't know the answer to that," he said.
TikTok owner, ByteDance has been racing to avoid a crackdown on TikTok after being at loggerheads with the U.S. government.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns that personal data of as many as 100 million Americans that use the app is being passed on to China's Communist Party government.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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