Chinese tech firm ByteDance, the owner of social media app TikTok, censored content critical of China’s government on its news aggregation app BaBe in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020, according to a new report from Reuters citing six people with direct knowledge of the issue.
Local Indonesian moderators for the Baca Berita (BaBe) app were told by Bytedance’s Beijing headquarters to delete “negative” news about Chinese authorities, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
BaBe admitted in a statement that before its current “more localised approach” to content oversight, it had “some moderation practices in place that were not consistent with our philosophy of having the Indonesian team deciding what is appropriate for its market.”
It disagreed with Reuters’ findings that initial guidelines stayed up well into this year, saying instead they had been replaced in 2019 — but did not respond to a query on which month in 2019 that had occurred. The app has since “built and empowered local moderation teams to make decisions that suit the local market,” it said.
Bytedance said it had no further comment beyond BaBe’s statement.
The news comes as President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that forces ByteDance’s popular TikTok app to sell to an American company or pull out of the U.S. market. He and other U.S. politicians have cited concerns that Beijing could access U.S. citizens’ data via the app, and that TikTok censors content in accordance with Beijing’s directives.
“If ByteDance will censor BaBe in Indonesia, what’s to stop it from censoring TikTok in the United States?” Republican Senator Josh Hawley told Reuters. “We shouldn’t trust any assurances they make. This is another reason TikTok as it currently exists should be banned in the United States.”
Indonesia is a key market for ByteDance where its TikTok app has seen more than 147 million downloads, according to data from SensorTower. The app was briefly banned in 2018 for showing “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy,” Reuters cited local officials as saying.
ByteDance upped its majority stake in BaBe to full ownership of the app soon after. The app uses AI to sift through and disseminate local news stories. As of the end of 2019, it had eight million monthly active users.
Once BaBe was under ByteDance control, moderators were told to cease republishing or remove articles critical of the Chinese government, six people directly involved said. The same held true content related to Tiananmen Square, Mao Zedong, or competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.