“We are finally safe from the Chinese government’s spies!”: this is a joking joke, referring to the opening of the new, huge datacenter (This) where TikTok will store European user datathat we chose to start our chat with Theo Bertram, vice president in charge of relations with governments.
He smiled, and was not caught unprepared: “TikTok is not Chinese, and neither is ByteDance (the company that controls it, ed.) is in fact Chinese, because it has its registered office in the Cayman Islands”. Which is true, as we have been able to verify, even if it is equally true that it was founded in Beijing and that one of the two founders, the entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, is of Chinese origin but “it’s not like he can change his origins”, as Bertram told us again. And yet, the company “is not Chinese-owned and has no relations with the Chinese Communist Party: 60% is in the hands of investors, including foreign ones, such as Sequoia and other venture capitalists, 20% is held by employees and the remaining 20% remains with the founders”. Furthermore, “of the 5 members of the board of directors, none belong to the PCC and 4 are chosen by foreign investors.”
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Data protected, but not all inaccessible
Bertram, who before arriving at TikTok worked for over 8 years at Googlehe is however aware of the fact that there is “suspicion and skepticism towards China”that “we cannot change this” but that “we can demonstrate that we have no relations with China” and above all “we can show how we work”.
“How we work”, specifically, is linked to the management of European users’ data and respect for their privacy and is expressed in the 3 datacenter created in record time on the territory of the European Union, two in Ireland and one in Norway, the largest of its kind in all of Europe: “The users, the individual people who use TikTok, are not scared of the platform – he reminded us Bertram – Politicians are, as they were at the beginning at Google, but we will be able to earn their trust”.
To do this, the company will invest over 12 billion euros in Europe in 10 years to keep Europeans’ personal information safe, relying on the experience of NCC, a British cybersecurity company: the data will obviously be protected from unwanted incursions from the outside, attempted violations and other types of hacking with the usual procedures and countermeasures, but the access of TikTok employees will also be regulated. The company made us understand that not everyone will be able to see everything (there will be various levels of authorization) and that everyone will have their own personal quantity of what we could call Privacy Credits to spend in order to operate on user data: access will have different costs depending on the quantity and type of information requested and the idea is that having a limited limit reduces the risk of abuse or even raises some alarm bells in the event of repeated and close requests. Furthermore, NCC will carry out periodic checkseven in the presence, of the procedures in place in the 3 data centers, as well as checks on the TikTok website and app.
On information management, Bertram explained to us a interesting detail: “Data that should not circulate will never leave Europe and will never be accessible outside Europe, but the authorities must understand that some must circulate instead, so that we can do our job.” In what sense? “Videos from European users must be able to go around the world if those who create them want them to be seen, to become viral, to be successful and to collect many views (which is the aim of those who create content for social media, ed.) – Bertram explained to us – Certain phases of the interaction, such as being able to block a specific user or change the visibility of a video from Public a Private or vice versa, they are only possible if there is an exchange of data and metadata linked to these videos”. Again: “If a company wants to know how one of its own is doing advertising campaign made on TikTok and wants data on various countries around the world, on who saw what and from where, we must be able to access that data, and therefore also the data of European citizens, obviously anonymously”.
In a nutshell, and thanks to work done by NCC in the 3 data centers present in the EU, “the data that must be able to circulate must be done with all possible protections”, because “we already do better than our competitors and collect less data than our competitors, but that’s not enough: we wanna be the best”. That is, “we want to be the best”, as Bertram told us, also telling us that “at the beginning of November the EU told us to show appreciation for what we are doing on this and that we are going in the right direction”. It’s obvious that he says it, but it’s also what comes across leafing through the first reports related to DSApublished by all social networks.
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How moderation works on TikTok
Be that as it may, “the work is not finished”, either because “there is always something to do and always to improve” and because a political variable comes into play in the relationship between TikTok and the Western world which makes it more difficult to dispel doubts. It happens despite the fact that (for example) Jeremy Fleming, head of British counter-espionage until a few months ago, has reiterated several times that it would encourage young people to use the app because it doesn’t process data in China or what research from the University of Toronto (this) found that the app is not worrying in terms of data collection and that the user profiling activity “is well within industry standards”. In short: TikTok does more or less what other social networks do and has more or less the same problems as them.
This also applies to content moderation, the true Achilles’ heel of platforms. from YouTube with its recurring problems with adult content to the point of excessive zeal sometimes shown by TikTok itself. Bertram helped us understand what happens behind the scenes, telling us some things we already knew and revealing others we weren’t aware of: “Obviously, artificial intelligence has an important role in this enormous work, we have developed our algorithms internally and have different models to perform different tasksboth to understand what people like and show it to them (these are the so-called recommender systems, ed.) and to not show people what we don’t want visible on TikTok”.
As elsewhere, AI is therefore the first line of defense, especially due to the speed with which he manages to act: “On TikTok we don’t want anyone to be seen smoking – Bertram explained to us – We let a video pass in which a person has a cigarette in his hand but not one in which the cigarette is brought to the mouth. AI is able to make this distinction and do it in seconds.” Smoking is among other things one of the 3 macro areas on which TikTok exercises maximum attention: “During the upload phase of a video, an immediate check is made on the presence of cigarettesof scenes of nakedof elements related to terrorism – Bertram revealed to us – If none of these 3 things are present, the video is released and can be published”. From there begins a more precise control over the content, which goes on practically indefinitely: “Other more general checks are carried out periodically on all videos that reach specific goals, when they reach 1000 views, then again to 10 thousand, to 100 thousand and so on”. The idea is that “a video that goes viral is checked several times”, so as to reduce the possibility of error. And also to possibly be sanctioned, which can happen in severe Europe more than elsewhere in the world.
This though doesn’t seem to worry TikTok, which has 150 million users in the Old Continent and is clearly intent on growing: “We love Europe, and we love it precisely for all the rules it has,” Bertram told us at the end of our chat. Why? “Because then it is very clear what can be done and what not.”