with Tonya Riley
Washington lawmakers already want to put TikTok’s new chief executive in the hot seat.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) welcomed former Disney executive Kevin Mayer into his new role with an invitation on Twitter to appear in front of Congress.
Hawley has long pressed TikTok to send its top executive to testify amid worries that the app’s China-based parent company ByteDance could siphon Americans’ data and politically censor content — and he’s eager to follow through now that the company has a U.S.-based chief.
.@tiktok_us previously told me they couldn’t attend hearings and testify because executives were located in #China. But this new executive lives in the USA. I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath. https://t.co/XPfiVpo9Ta
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) May 18, 2020
The chilly welcome underscores the challenge facing Mayer to boost TikTok’s image in Washington.
The company is bringing Mayer on as it’s confronting a barrage of scrutiny over its privacy practices that threatens to derail its meteoric surge in popularity – which is only growing as Americans around the country spend more time on social media during widespread stay-at-home orders. ByteDance is betting a seasoned executive from a trusted company like Disney could be the right messenger as it tries to distance itself from long-running controversies.
“ByteDance has so many problems — and an ambitious global expansion agenda — that it desperately needs a ‘Magic Kingdom’ fix,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer protection group. “They want to use the Disney family-friendly branding that Kevin Mayer provides to calm down unhappy regulators — and nervous investors — about TikTok’s numerous privacy difficulties.”
Kids’ privacy is a central focus of advocates’ concerns.
The Center for Digital Democracy recently partnered with other consumer groups to accuse TikTok of failing to keep the terms of an settlement that it brokered with the Federal Trade Commission last year, according to the New York Times. The company promised to obtain a parent’s permission before collecting a child’s personal information and to delete the personal information – including videos – of users identified under 13. But the consumer groups identified several videos posted by children under 13 in 2016 that remain on TikTok, as well as issues with the company’s age verification system.
TikTok told the Times in the statement: “We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users.”
Some privacy advocates said they welcomed an overhaul in leadership. “Given that TikTok has been either unable or unwilling to protect children’s privacy and safety, changes at the very top are welcome,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, another consumer group involved in the complaint. “We hope that Mr. Mayer will bring a new mindset to TikTok, one that prioritizes children’s privacy even when doing so threatens profits.”
TikTok is also faces a barrage of regulatory threats due to Washington’s deep skepticism of its ties to China.
Hawley has introduced legislation to ban any federal employee from using the app. Several government agencies and military branches have already prohibited employees from downloading or using the app.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States last year opened a review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, which was subsequently rebranded as TikTok. Lawmakers including Hawley have raised concerns that the Chinese parent company has censored political content, and also raised questions about how the company stores personal data.
TikTok appears to be distancing itself from its leadership in China.
A TikTok spokesman told the Times yesterday “that TikTok was not owned by a Beijing-based company. Instead, its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, though he could not say how many people are based there.” That entity owns TikTok and all of the China-based businesses.
That set off alarm bells from Hawley:
Interesting! @tiktok_us tells @nytimes that it is not really a Chinese company because parent co @BytedanceTalk incorporated in Caymans. I got it. So @tiktok_us & @BytedanceTalk are based in #China, do business in USA – and seek tax shelter in Caymans. Sounds TOTALLY legit
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) May 19, 2020
But it remains to be seen if Mayer’s addition will turn the tide.
From Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.):
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) May 18, 2020
Mayer’s hire could signal that TikTok is expanding its entertainment business as it aims to generate more revenue.
Mayer oversaw the rollout of the Disney streaming service, and he was widely seen as a contender to replace former Disney chief executive Robert A. Iger. The role ultimately went to Bob Chapek, the chairman of Disney’s theme parks and consumer products businesses.
He joins TikTok as Bloomberg reports that the app is rapidly hiring Hollywood and music industry insiders.
“Like everyone else, I’ve been impressed watching the company build something incredibly rare in TikTok – a creative, positive online global community – and I’m excited to help lead the next phase of ByteDance’s journey as the company continues to expand its breadth of products across every region of the world,” Mayer said in a statement.
Rant and rave
TikTok’s “semantic wrangling” seemed familiar to some tech journalists. NBC News’s Olivia Solon:
It reminds me of when an Amazon spox tried to argue that it was not a technology company
— Olivia Solon (@oliviasolon) May 18, 2020
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
Our top tabs
A warehouse in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains has become Amazon’s biggest coronavirus hotspot.
The exact number of cases is unknown, but local lawmakers believe that more than 100 workers have contracted the disease, Karen Weise reports for the New York Times. The company was alerting employees to each case but stopped giving specific numbers when the total rose to 60 cases.
Amazon has stopped making such disclosures at other warehouses, too. More than 900 of the company’s 400,000 blue-collar workers have had the disease, according to the best estimate. But that number, crowdsourced by Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker, is likely a low estimate of the spread of the virus.
Dave Clark, who runs Amazon’s global operations, told the Times in a statement that “we were earlier than most when rolling out broad protective measures for our teams, and we’ve adapted every day to make improvements.” The warehouse is in a region with a high community infection rate, and Clark said employees may have caught the virus outside of the facility.
Uber laid off 3,000 more workers and is closing or consolidating 40 offices around the world.
The cuts follow layoffs of 3,700 employees earlier this month, amounting to a 25 percent workforce decrease since the pandemic began, Faiz Siddiqui reports.
The financial pressure has also led the company to cut back on resources for experimental projects, including its driverless cars divison.
“I wanted there to be a different answer,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in an email to employees, which was shared by the company. “Ultimately, I realized that hoping the world would return to normal within any predictable time frame, so we could pick up where we left off on our path to profitability, was not a viable option.”
The Justice Department slammed Apple after data on the Pensacola, Fla., gunman’s phone was traced back to al-Qaeda.
The FBI and Justice Department said they managed to access the phone data of a Saudi air force student who killed three people at a U.S. military base in Pensacola, Fla., in December. But Attorney General William P. Barr criticized the phone maker for delaying the investigation by not providing access to data protected by strong encryption, Devlin Barrett reports.
Officials declined to say how the FBI was able to access the phones, but a person familiar with the investigation told Devlin that agents used a passcode-guessing machine. That process still took months.
“Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and the national security,” Barr said.
Apple released a statement criticizing Barr’s claims as “an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.” The company has firmly insisted that providing law enforcement with a “backdoor” to encrypted technologies would also lead to spying by bad actors.
Barr’s push against encryption has reignited a debate over whether tech companies should give law enforcement a “backdoor” sparked by a similar terrorism incident in 2015. Barr claims expansion of encryption could shield child predators and terrorists.
Many privacy experts say that the case shows the agency’s continued insistence that it needs Apple to access phone data simply isn’t true, reports The Cybersecurity 202’s Joseph Marks.
“The boy who cried wolf has nothing on the agency that cried encryption,” said ACLU lawyer Brett Max Kaufman.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) joined the Justice Department in blasting Apple.
Despite Apple’s stonewalling, the FBI was finally able to access critical data from the iPhone of a terrorist. I applaud their determination & hard work. But it’s work that wouldn’t need to be done if Apple would ‘Think Different’ about siding with terrorists over law enforcement https://t.co/1eDehIou95
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) May 18, 2020
Apple will introduce new safety measures as it reopens 30 stores in the United States this week.
The company will limit the number of shoppers allowed inside the store and check their temperatures as they enter, Rachel Lerman reports. It will also require social distancing of six feet and that shoppers wear masks. Thirteen of the stores reopening are in California and Washington, where only curbside pickup will be allowed.
Apple has employed similar social distancing measures in China, where it reopened stores in March.
“These are not decisions we rush into — and a store opening in no way means that we won’t take the preventive step of closing it again should local conditions warrant,” Apple retail and human resources chief Deirdre O’Brien wrote in a public letter outlining the changes.
The openings make up just 9 percent of the retailer’s U.S. locations. But analysts say the opening will still give the company a boost.
“The stores opening back up is a much-needed shot in the arm for Cook and Cupertino,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives.
Ten House Democrats are pressing Google’s chief executive about alleged cuts in its diversity programs since 2018.
The letter, led by Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) was sparked by a recent NBC News investigation in which eight current and former Google employees said that the company cut its diversity and inclusion programs out of fear of conservative backlash. Google has denied the allegations.
The letter asks Google chief executive Sundar Pichai to explain why the programs were scaled back and what the company’s current diversity initiatives look like.
Inside the industry
Japanese investment group SoftBank will seek buyers for about $20 billion of its shares in T-Mobile U.S.
SoftBank owns about 25 percent of the company after its recent merger with Sprint, which is also controlled by SoftBank, the Wall Street Journal reports. The deal could allow for T-Mobile’s parent company to bring its ownership stake of the company over 50 percent.
More industry news:
When Verizon (which owns this publication) announced it was buying video conferencing company BlueJeans for around $500 million last month, you probably thought it was going take awhile to bake, but the companies announced today that they has closed the deal.
Square employees will be able to work from home indefinitely after the pandemic.
The new policy follows a similar announcement at Twitter last week, where Jack Dorsey is also chief executive. “Over the past several weeks, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes for people to effectively perform roles outside of an office, and we will continue to learn as we go,” Square told the Verge.
- Data and Society Institute will host a digital discussion on the future of labor organizing Wednesday at 6 p.m.
- The House Homeland Security Committee will host a panel on extremism during the pandemic Wednesday at 1 p.m.
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