As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

1 / 2
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)
2 / 2
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, DC, on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images via AFP)
Short Url
Updated 25 March 2023
Follow

As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

  • The impact and implications of TikTok’s growing influence in the MENA region are a global concern with more questions than answers after a congressional hearing with app CEO
  • TikTok CEO’s mounting woes as security concerns place him in the hotseat at a US congressional hearing with the world looking on for answers

DUBAI/LONDON: In yet another congressional hearing-turned-nail-biting drama, TikTok’s CEO was the latest global tech chief to take center stage before the US Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive of perhaps the world’s most popular app, was in the same hot seat that previously hosted the likes of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

People from around the globe tuned in to see how Chew would justify and ensure US user data was safe and protected.




Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) question TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew as he testifies before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

TikTok’s Chinese roots are not just an issue for US citizens; “it impacts the world,” Giles Crouch, a digital anthropologist, told Arab News.

“While the Chinese government doesn’t own a majority share in TikTok, they do own what’s called a ‘golden share,’ so they have a seat at the board,” he added.

India has already banned the app entirely, while Canada, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US have banned TikTok on government devices. However, the app still operates fully across the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia alone, a country with a majority youth population, the app has 26.39 million users — the most in the region. Iraq and Egypt both have more than 23 million users, while the UAE has almost 6 million.

For five hours, bipartisan lawmakers grilled Chew over a range of topics, namely the claim that the Chinese Communist Party has access to TikTok user data, as well as fears over the platform’s algorithms and content that could have a potentially harmful impact on young people.

The questioning ended with a frustrated committee unsatisfied with Chew’s responses. The CEO, when given the chance to answer questions, often came across as evasive, resorting to “I’ll get back to you with specifics.”

Such hesitation and evasiveness has become a cause for concern among users and governments around the globe, with France taking the decision to ban the app on administrative phones just one day after the hearing.

“Our CEO, Shou Chew, came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” a TikTok MENA spokesperson told Arab News, relaying the same response issued by the global company.

Last year, TikTok announced the $1.5 billion Project Texas initiative to protect the data of its US users. The plan, which is estimated to cost the company $700 million to $1 billion per year, hopes to address government concerns about user data privacy risks and content recommendations.





TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

During the hearing, the committee questioned Chew about Project Texas, with some members asking how the $1.5 billion would be allocated. Other members remained skeptical of the project, as well as TikTok’s ability to truly safeguard US data.

Many, if not all, committee members seemed to believe that TikTok is essentially an arm of the Chinese government. Although Chew said that he has not seen any “evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it,” several members openly voiced their disbelief.

“I find that actually preposterous,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.

In a recent column, however, Al Arabiya News Channel’s Mamdouh Al-Muhaini claimed that “both arguments (of spying and propaganda spreading) are absurd and lack conclusive evidence. Rather, they are being used merely for political blackmail — to force China to make concessions amid international conflict between Beijing and Washington.




TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)

“The war on TikTok comes in the context of the race between America — and the West — and China. In a war for influence, brains and hearts, all weapons, accusations and pretexts can be used,” he said, adding that the app was “being used as a device in the (US-China) cold war.”

An FBI and Department of Justice investigation into TikTok’s ability to spy on US citizens also undermined Chew’s case. Last year, parent company ByteDance confirmed that its employees used TikTok to track and obtain the IP addresses of multiple US journalists covering the app.

Yet, when Congressman Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance is spying on US citizens, the CEO shakily replied: “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

The Chinese minister of foreign affairs held a press briefing the following day, with a spokesperson saying: “The Chinese government has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.




AFP illustration image

“The US government has provided no evidence or proof that TikTok threatens US national security, yet it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning added that the US should “respect the principles of a market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing foreign companies and provide an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies operating in the US.”

While a plethora of countries in the West chimed in on the debate, governments across the Middle East have largely stayed silent.

In a previous interview with Arab News, Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said that concerns over TikTok’s data security stemmed from the app’s country of origin as well as Chinese rules and regulations.

“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.

Apart from the focus on spying and data collection, members of congress also grilled the TikTok CEO over the platform’s algorithms for content suggestions and discovery, particularly among vulnerable audiences. Members asked why certain content is allowed to be published on the platform — unlike on China’s sister app Douyin, which is heavily censored.

“TikTok can be very good for kids but the way it’s used in China is very different from the way it’s used in the rest of the world — what kids are seeing in Riyadh or Dubai is very different from what they’re going to be seeing in Beijing,” said Crouch, the digital anthropologist.

Douyin features “very positive and uplifting content” that encourages “doing good for the community, helping one another and being very sociable,” he added.

But in other countries, “they (TikTok) literally use algorithms which manipulate young kids’ minds so they get served with content that is mindless, often negative, and can be disturbing to those minds,” Crouch said.




ikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew departs after testifying during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on  March 23, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo)

Chew attributed the contrast in content on TikTok and Douyin to the different laws in each country. That argument is true to some extent, because the Chinese government does have more control over content posted on domestic platforms.

“They put the controls in place in China to stop kids from being overly stimulated,” said Crouch. But “they just don’t care for the rest of the world because they’re out to make money.”

In some aspects, including dangerous content, TikTok is very much like any other social media company, many of which originated in Silicon Valley — a fact acknowledged by some members of the committee.

Senior executives from Meta, Twitter and Google have all appeared before US Congress in an attempt to allay concerns over data, privacy and moderation.

However, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw said in the hearing, all social media companies collect personal data and could use it to “influence narratives and trends, create misinformation campaigns, encourage self-destructive behavior, purposefully allow drug cartels to communicate freely and organize human and drug trafficking.”

But the difference is that “it’s only TikTok that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

 


Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Updated 22 February 2024
Follow

Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

  • New committee for press freedoms established
  • 100-day plan endorsed, several proposals to start immediately

RIYADH: The Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board approved on Wednesday an executive strategy which will see several new committees established and a number of proposals fast tracked over the next 100 days.

The move came during the board’s second meeting, led by Adhwan Al-Ahmari, the association’s chairman, which took place on the sidelines of the Saudi Media Forum, held at the Riyadh Hilton Hotel.

Newly established dedicated committees will oversee the implementation of the association’s approved plan. These include an Executive Committee, responsible for setting interim targets and addressing urgent issues, and the Review and Performance Committee, tasked with monitoring performance, assessing committee effectiveness, and ensuring target fulfillment.

The Press Freedoms Committee will establish frameworks, implement plans, and collaborate with international media organizations to safeguard press freedoms.

In order to provide the association with a more robust foundation for its operations, the board has also decided to form a Committee for Developing Financial Resources, which will explore methods to generate income and ensure sustainability.

The Members and Relations Committee will manage the members’ affairs, while the Training Committee is tasked with crafting short-term and long-term training programs, as well as fostering partnerships with local and international universities and training centers.

The Events Committee will create executive plans for the association’s events and will develop a standardized criteria for internal and external activities, while the Content Committee is responsible for establishing a comprehensive editorial policy for all postings, as well as overseeing and improving the association’s website.

The board of directors endorsed a 100-day plan for the implementation of all proposals. The plan will be revised during the board’s next meeting.

The meeting of the board also discussed forming a club for journalists, which will be headquartered in Riyadh and operated by the association.

The board examined legal protection for media workers who are members of the association, in line with its regulations.

The board members emphasized the significance of expanding membership to include media students and trainees, providing them with a special membership to learn from professional journalists.

The meeting also discussed securing funding sources and establishing governance for the association’s fund for supporting journalists.


Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Updated 22 February 2024
Follow

Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

  • Hasan will be regular commentator with first column Wednesday urging US president to end Gaza ‘genocide’
  • MSNBC cancelled ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ in January amid widespread criticisms

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is moving to The Guardian US following his sudden exit from the network last month.

The British-American writer and broadcaster, known for his award-winning work, will be a regular columnist for the American online presence of the British newspaper.

Its US editor, Betsy Reed, said Hasan’s addition would enhance the publication’s political commentary, advocacy for human rights and free speech, and accountability for those in power.

Hasan’s debut column, published on Wednesday, urged American President Joe Biden to pressure the Israeli government to end what he described as the “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hasan said: “I have been poring over columns in The Guardian since I was a teenager. Now I get to write some of my own, in what is perhaps one of the busiest and biggest news years of my lifetime. It’s a huge honor and a privilege.”

The move came after Hasan’s MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly cancelled by the network. While his programs did not always draw large audiences on MSNBC, his passionate monologues and incisive interviews earned him a significant online following, often leading to viral clips.

The timing of the show’s cancellation raised eyebrows, coinciding with Hasan’s criticism of Israel’s actions during its conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Media analysts and fellow journalists have raised concerns that ending Hasan’s show had left American audiences without a crucial voice in the corporate news landscape during times of ongoing conflict.

The Guardian US has been expanding its team, adding prominent columnists and an investigative unit, reflecting the growing interest in British media among American audiences.


‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

Updated 21 February 2024
Follow

‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

  • Words ‘indicate US complicity’ in suffering, experts warn
  • Controversial video emerged as US vetoed UN ceasefire resolution for 3rd time

LONDON: A US congressman has sparked outrage after claiming “we should kill them all” in reference to Palestinians in Gaza.

US representative for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district Andy Ogles was approached by a group of pro-Palestine activists in Washington on Tuesday.

He was told by one activist: “I’ve seen the footage of shredded children’s bodies. That’s my taxpayer dollars that are going to bomb those kids.”

Ogles responded: “You know what? So, I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It’s time to pay the piper.”

The shocking video of the Republican congressman has sparked widespread condemnation across social media, with experts warning that Ogles’s words are indicative of Washington’s complicity in suffering in Gaza.

“For those of you wondering how the Nazis, Daesh, etc. can kill people indiscriminately, now you are witnessing leaders and prominent people in the so-called enlightened democratic societies demonstrating that blind adherence to any ideology can make ordinary people into evil monsters,” lawyer, author and human rights activists Faisal Kutty said X.

“These people have all sold their souls to the highest bidder,” he added.

Ogles, known for his staunch, unconditional support for Israel, previously voted to censure congresswoman member Rashida Tlaib over allegations she had supported the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Ogles has also proposed legislation preventing Palestinians from entering the US.

The outrage over Ogles’s comments comes as the Biden administration faces growing criticism over its vetoing of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. It marked the third veto by the US since Oct. 7.

UNICEF has warned of a potential surge in preventable child deaths in Gaza due to malnutrition and disease. Save the Children’s Jason Lee described the situation as “astronomical” and warned that words cannot capture the scale of death and destruction in the enclave.

Israeli forces have reportedly killed more than 12,400 children in Gaza since Oct. 7, with more than 600,000 children now trapped in Rafah. Save the Children highlighted the alarming rate of amputations, with more than 10 children per day in Gaza, on average, losing one or both of their legs since October.


From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

Updated 21 February 2024
Follow

From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

  • Gaza war has casted shadow over European cultural life after anger at Israel offensive flares in France, Italy, Britain
  • Artists have chosen to boycott the Berlin Film Festival in protest against Germany's alleged suppression of pro-Palestinian voices

BERLIN: Indian-American filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri was set to showcase his film about anti-colonial resistance against the Portuguese empire at this month’s Berlinale film festival but dropped out.
Announcing his boycott on Instagram, Sanzgiri accused the German authorities of silencing voices speaking out for Palestinians in the war in Gaza. “I will not be complicit. We all have blood on our hands,” he wrote.
Sanzgiri’s is one of at least three films that were withdrawn by their creators, while other events at the festival also saw artists pulling out.
The withdrawals showed the tricky waters Germany’s cultural institutions are navigating, caught between protecting artistic freedoms while recognizing what many Germans see as a historic responsibility for Israel after the Nazi Holocaust.
Such disputes have also flared elsewhere in Europe since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants. The European Broadcasting Union has resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest.
Protests erupted in the Italian city of Naples in February after state broadcaster RAI distanced itself from an appeal made by rapper Ghali to “stop the genocide” during the closing night of the popular Sanremo Music Festival.
In Britain, a network of artists has been documenting events that were axed over artists’ pro-Palestinian views. The Arnolfini art gallery in Bristol also sparked a backlash after canceling two Palestinian film events, fearing they could “stray into political activity.”
In France, a group of artists in November organized a “silent march” where they held a white banner with no slogans.

STRIKE GERMANY
In Germany, anger over the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has killed 29,000 Palestinians, has clashed with sensibilities over supporting Israel. Critics say crackdowns on pro-Palestinian voices confuse criticism with legitimate protest.
As cultural events are often state supported, critics say the government has used its financial power to prevent any criticism of Israel, a charge the government strongly rejects.
“Freedom of art and freedom of expression are among the most important basic principles of democracy in Germany, which are of course also protected by the federal government,” a spokesperson for the culture ministry said.
“The institutions and projects funded at the federal level have curatorial freedom and decide for themselves which artists they work with,” the spokesperson added.
While announcing his Berlinale boycott, filmmaker Sanzgiri voiced support for Strike Germany, an initiative launched by anonymous artists in January calling on filmmakers, musicians, writers and artists to withdraw from cultural events in Germany.
“It is a call to refuse German cultural institutions’ use of McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine,” the organizers wrote.
Some 1,600 artists have signed up, according a list on the initiative’s website, including French Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux. Reuters could not verify the list’s authenticity.
Last month, Berlin’s CTM music festival announced several artists withdrawing in solidarity with Strike Germany.
Strike Germany calls for the adoption of a different definition of anti-Semitism that does not include criticism of the state of Israel.
The Berlinale has not shied away from the Gaza issue. It is hosting a so-called Tiny House initiative, a small space inviting disparate voices to debate the war. One of the films spotlighted Israeli settlers encroaching on land.
It is one of several cultural events in Germany clouded by anger over Gaza.
Hundreds of international writers condemned the Frankfurt Book Fair after a Palestinian writer’s award was postponed in October. In November, the entire selection committee for one of Europe’s most important art exhibitions, “documenta,” resigned after disputes over the Israel-Hamas conflict.


Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

Updated 21 February 2024
Follow

Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

  • Individuals and businesses can build AI software based on Google’s new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free

SAN FRANCISCO: Google on Wednesday released new artificial intelligence (AI) models that outside developers potentially can fashion as their own, following a similar move by Meta Platforms and others.
The Alphabet subsidiary said individuals and businesses can build AI software based on its new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free. The company is making key technical data such as what are called model weights publicly available, it said.
The move may attract software engineers to build on Google’s technology and encourage usage of its newly profitable cloud division. The models are “optimized” for Google Cloud, where first-time cloud customers using them get $300 in credits, the company said.
Google stopped short of making Gemma fully “open source,” meaning the company still may have a hand in setting terms of use and ownership. Some experts have said open-source AI was ripe for abuse, while others have championed the approach for widening the set of people who can contribute to and benefit from the technology.
With the announcement, Google did not make its bigger, premier models known as Gemini open, unlike Gemma. It said the Gemma models are sized at two billion or seven billion parameters — or the number of different values that an algorithm takes into account to generate output.
Meta’s Llama 2 models range from seven to 70 billion parameters in size. Google has not disclosed the size of its largest Gemini models. For comparison, OpenAI’s GPT-3 model announced in 2020 had 175 billion parameters.
Chipmaker Nvidia on Wednesday said it has worked with Google to ensure Gemma models run smoothly on its chips. Nvidia also said it will soon make chatbot software, which it is developing to run AI models on Windows PCs, work with Gemma.