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“TikTok Public Policy’s Michael Beckerman” (Two Think Minimum)

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This interview with Michael Beckerman was recorded on Monday, July 27th. A lot has changed for TikTok since, with the President’s threat to ban the app if TikTok doesn’t divest it’s US opererations from it’s parent company before September 15th. The contents of the interview are still release and so we’re bringing it to you now on August 5th.

Tom Lenard: Hello, and welcome back to TPI’s podcast, Two Think Minimum. It’s Monday, July 27th, and I’m Tom Lenard, President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. And I’m joined by Scott Wallsten, who is TPI’s President and Senior Fellow. Today, we’re delighted to have as our guest Michael Beckerman. Michael currently serves as Vice President and head of US public policy at TikTok, a position he has held since March. He previously was the founding President and CEO of the Internet Association, a Washington, DC based trade association, representing global internet companies. Prior to that, he served for 12 years in increasingly responsible staff positions on Capitol Hill, ending as the Deputy Staff Director and Chief Policy Advisor to the Chairman of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees America’s internet policies. Michael is also active in the DC angel investing community where he’s invested in several startups. Welcome, Michael, can you start out by telling us briefly what TikTok is and what accounts for its dramatic growth?

Michael Beckerman: Thanks, Tom. I appreciate you making the time and having me. So TikTok is a short form video app that is designed to inspire creativity and bring joy to its users. It’s an entertainment platform and it’s something that has grown in a major way in the United States and around the world, I think largely because of the kind of content that’s on the platform that allows people to be creative and have fun watching short form videos and doing it with their family and friends. And particularly now in the last few months, as we’ve been on lockdowns, we’re seeing a lot of folks coming together and families coming together around doing TikToks together. And so it’s been a really uplifting platform. And I think that’s been part of the growth story of the app, is that people are looking for a sunnier corner of the internet. And that’s what TikTok is able to provide.

Tom: So who are its major users? What demographic does it appeal to?

Michael: I mean, really it has a very broad demographic. I mean, we’re seeing now everything from grandparents doing videos with their teenage grandchildren. So there’s really a diversity of users and a diversity of content. And it’s something where, depending on what your interests are, and maybe what you’re coming to the platform for, the videos are going to be a little bit more tailored to your interests. So there’s something for everyone.

Tom: You had a pretty good job before, as a head of the Internet Association. What made you decide to make the jump to TikTok?

Michael: I mean as much as I love Internet Association and it was a terrific position and have a lot of fondness for our member companies, I was very appreciative for that opportunity over the last eight years. But to have a chance to come in house and build a public policy function for a company like TikTok was really very compelling to me, to be able to come in at a very early stage, and put a team together and have a hand in the positions that the company is taking and the way that we can situate ourselves to be a more transparent and more accountable platform, that was very appealing.

Tom: So TikTok kind of finds itself now at the intersection of two, I wouldn’t say perfect storms, but these two storms. One is the general techlash, which affects tech companies generally. And the second is the, what we might call the, deteriorated relationship between the United States and China, which obviously affects TikTok because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is a Chinese company. There’s obviously, it’s amazing, scarcely a day goes by without an article in a major paper or statements by major political figures about TikTok. And so one statement that is reflective, by a major political figure, by our Secretary of State, and that reflects things being made by others, where he says that individuals who download TikTok are putting private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. So what is your response to that?

Michael: That’s a pretty big question. Maybe I’ll split it into two pieces if that’s all right. So first on the national security and concerns on China. There really is a lot of misinformation out there and we’re working hard to get the facts out and to educate people about what the platform is and what it isn’t, and how we’re organized, how we protect people’s information, because I do agree that there are major national security threats from China and from other state actors. I mean, we’ve seen that on every platform, frankly, everything from election interference that’s happened from foreign actors on US platforms, to major hacks, both of the US government, OPM, where many of us were, our most sensitive, personal information was taken directly out of the government’s hands, to what we saw, maybe just a year ago, with Equifax, your most sensitive financial information, kinds of information that people can use for the worst possible purposes of stealing your identity, buying a house in your name, or even potential other nefarious thing, knowing your deepest financial secrets, all taken. And these were from the US government and from US companies. And so, I do think it’s incumbent on all companies, regardless of origin, to have better cybersecurity practices and have better transparency and accountability for the way they’re protecting users’ information. And for us, it’s important to note that one, TikTok is not available in China. That’s a misconception. And I think it’s an important point that TikTok is not available in China, and the ownership structure and leadership structure and decision-making structure is such that TikTok does not flow into China for decision making or even from the ownership piece. Our board of directors, at the global level, for our parent company ByteDance, has some of the most prominent global investors, including US investors that sit on our board for oversight of the company, some of our largest investor are the most well-respected venture capital and private equity in the United States, and around the world, who are paying very close attention to the way we’re operating. And also our CEO and the core leadership of the company are all sitting in United States. We have an American CEO, we have a world-class Chief Security Officer who came over with a background in national defense and intelligence who has great relationships back to unity and is building what is a world-class enterprise level security operation for our app. And really the whole decision-making team, from content moderation to everything else, are US citizens and Americans making these decisions for both TikTok in the US and for around the world. And I think that’s an important point to recognize. And frankly, when you want to look at national security threats from China or elsewhere, it’s important to think about what the risks are, because I do think there is a problem when so much attention is going to what is an entertainment app, like TikTok, you can lose sight of the big picture and lose sight of the real threats, but I think that could be a problem. We’ve said time and time again, and we’re happy to do anything we can to prove it, including opening up transparency centers, where we invite policymakers in to look at our code and algorithm and everything else, whatever they want, under the hood, to see that what we’re saying is true, but we will not share information with the Chinese government. We haven’t done that. And that’s something that we’ve committed to protect Americans data. And when you look at some of the comments from some of the world’s leading security experts and analysts, they’ve said that TikTok collects less information than other platforms. And the platform is not something that’s a value from a security standpoint for China or anybody else. And folks should pay attention to where the real threats are and not get caught up in what is an entertainment app, that’s collecting less data than everything else that’s sitting on your phone that you’re using on a daily basis. And so I think that’s important to level set on that.

Scott Wallsten: One thing that people worry about though, is that when TikTok says that it won’t share any data with the Chinese government, even if it means that 100%, doesn’t China’s national intelligence law require that Chinese companies handover information, if the government asks for it?

Michael: Well, we don’t have TikTok as operating in China. And so by our read of that, that would not apply to us. I’ve actually even heard from some people that their interpretation of the Chinese security law, it means that anybody that is of Chinese nationality would be required to comply with this law. And if that’s the case, then I think we have a lot bigger problems than worrying about TikTok, because we’re going to be worried about any Chinese national that is working for a tech company or other company around the world. That’s a pretty big universe. We have employees in China. We do. So does every other major tech company, from companies that are making your hardware that you’re using every day, to companies that are making other software and internet products. I think that’s just the way of life. And, we, probably more than anybody, have put systems in place and are committed not to share any. So the way we’re structured, the way decisions are being made, we have our servers in Virginia with backups in Singapore and something that we’re committed to do. We’re getting more scrutiny than anybody else. And all we can do is make these commitments and have the accountability for folks that take a look into it.

Tom: Well, you are obviously getting more scrutiny than anybody else, and you are making those commitments, but do you think people will find those commitments credible, that they’ll be believed so long as you still have that relationship with the ByteDance in China? I mean, obviously there’s been articles recently that have speculated that maybe ByteDance is considering divesting TikTok, presumably way in response to these concerns. You want to make a little news here, are you guys considering divesting, separating in some way?

Michael: I’m not making, no offense Tom, I’m not making news on the podcast. Listen, we are going above and beyond to make sure that policy makers and regulators and all of our stakeholders can hold us accountable and have transparency to what we’re doing. Everything from content moderation or algorithms source code. We’re looking to be really a leader in the industry in both of those regards. And again, I think if folks take a step back, as many of the more serious national security and cybersecurity researchers have done, they point out that TikTok actually is not a national security threat. There are many threats out there, and it’s important that we focus on what the real trouble areas are and what you’ve seen time and time again from hacks and other things that when foreign actors are looking to manipulate platforms, as they’ve done in the election in the past, with other platforms, US platforms, and as they have done in the past with hacks, both of the government, there is very sensitive information out there. There are targets that can harm our democracy, as we’ve seen. And so when you’re focusing on an entertainment app, that many have said collects much less information than some of the larger players out there. It’s not really doing us a service in making us more safe or more secure, but with that said,  we do take these responsibilities seriously, protecting Americans user information is something that has to be done every single day because largely people need to trust the platforms that they’re spending time on every day. And that’s what we want to do.

Tom: So let’s talk a little bit about issues on TikTok that are really shared by all social media apps, and in particular your content policies and how you mediate and moderate content and what the rules are. Obviously, this is, you mentioned in one of your opening remarks, the question of election interference, and that’s an issue for you as well as Facebook and other apps. How would you describe the content? What are you doing to address those issues?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, you really need to spend a little bit of time on TikTok to see the difference between the kinds of content and the authenticity that exists in the platform. It’s unique and I think sometimes people can be confused and they expect the same kind of content that they see on other platforms on TikTok. It is different. It is very different. It’s much more entertainment focused. It’s much more authentic and creative and fun, frankly, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that hate speech has no place in the platform. And our content moderation teams are doing a great job of fighting that off on a daily and hourly basis. The same thing with mis- and disinformation. You know, as COVID hit, many platforms started to see mis- and disinformation about the new virus that was out there that people didn’t know. And so for us, we really invested more in detecting and removing disinformation around COVID, even adding new tools for user reporting and resources for our content moderation teams, but then going beyond that and working with trusted sources to make sure that legitimate sources of information are in the forefront, easy to access on the app, which we’ve done. And we’ve had a number of partnerships in the US and around the world that have been very positive on getting information out, particularly as it relates to COVID.

Tom: How do you define misinformation with respect to something like COVID? I mean, you read some accounts in the press and there’s one truth and everything else is misinformation, but we know that respectable scientists differ on what we should do. How do you apply that?

Tom: Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s something I know that that many companies struggle with. I mean, the key is, can the misinformation caused harm to health and public safety? And so that is really the key factor. And so something that is meant to incite fear or hate or prejudice, or that could cause harm to people’s health, misinformation or misleading information about medical treatments, hoaxes, phishing, manipulated content, anything like that that’s going to cause harm, that’s really what we’re looking for, to make sure that the community is not misled or harmed in that way. And the same applies on the election side. And that’s why on all of these, we look to point to legitimate sources and to remove harmful content.

Scott: Thinking more about TikTok’s place in the market, who do you consider to be TikTok’s major competitors?

Michael: That’s a good question. We’re seeing the launch of a number of copycats coming from some of our larger competitors, I’d rather not name them, but I think, you know who the leaders are in the industry. Some of our former members at IA obviously. And look, for us, we do focus on the customer. We do focus on the people that are using and relying on the platform to make sure they have the best possible experience and that our app can be a place of entertainment and joy and something more uplifting, and certainly there’ll be competition for that. And those seeking to try to copy what we’re doing, or even to try to malign us in some ways to make it look like TikTok is not an app that can be trusted, but it’s something that we work to improve the platform every single day and make sure that our people that are relying on the platform find entertainment and joyful and authentic.

Scott: I don’t know whether there’s data on this or not, but do you get the sense that you’re taking share of some sort or another from Facebook or Instagram, or are you bringing in new users to social media?

Michael: I don’t know, this is something different, I don’t want to speculate on where the users are coming from. For us, we really want to focus on coming up with a platform and a community that is different. It’s a different mission. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it on the internet. And that’s what I think people have really responded to, again, like during the pandemic and during other major events, even over the year, we’re seeing the community come together with the kind of content that can really be helpful and joyful. I mean, let’s be honest. These are challenging times, in a whole host of ways and, and folks are stuck at home. Even as we’re doing this call I know my baby’s crying downstairs and everybody has stuff that’s going on in their lives and in their homes and it’s just very unusual times. And to be able to have a platform that’s not looking to be divisive or combative and the content is, I keep saying it, but it’s true, I’ve spent some time on the app, maybe not as much as I would like since I’m working a whole lot, but it’s fun and joyful and funny and confined, like a nice escape for a few minutes as you’re scrolling through videos, but even an opportunity for families to come together. I mean, we’re seeing so much of this during the quarantine, the families that maybe in the last few years have lost their opportunities to kind of come together and do board game night or something like that. We’re seeing families come together and do dances or do cooking or exercise together, or other fun things as a family, that is really quite nice and something that’s been missing over the last few years.

Tom: Do you view TikTok’s success as a refutation of the view held by many antitrust economists, and others, that the barriers to entry in this area are so high, that no entry as possible, partly that’s because of the so-called data barrier to entry? What are your thoughts on those issues?

Michael: I’d rather not comment or get into the antitrust space.

Tom: but it is clear that TikTok has entered and gained a lot of subscribers, members in a relatively short period of time. That is a fact, right?

Michael That is a fact.

Tom: Which is a good thing for competition. Right?

Michael: Well, TikTok existing is incredibly important for competition, certainly. And for choice, both from brands and advertisers, for individuals. And so, yeah, it is important that we exist and stick around. You know, certainly there are some that we compete with that would rather we didn’t.

Tom: Right. Well, I need to ask one or two more questions about the things that are currently in the news and one of it is, and I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know but this talk of court banning TikTok. Is that possible? Is that legal?

Michael: How about I focus on the facts? And the fact is that TikTok is a platform that is safe, is transparent, we’re putting ourselves in a position where we can be accountable. And as I mentioned earlier, TikTok is not available in China. We do not, and would not share information with the Chinese government. I’ve seen so many different, completely false accusations about the company. Everything from that, we have communist members in our board of directors. I mean, our board is publicly available. There are no Chinese Communist Party members on our board of directors. We have American citizens on our board, who’re some of the most well-respected venture capitalists in the world that have invested and have oversight over the company. We have an American CEO and leadership. And so, we’ve really gone above and beyond, probably, I’m guessing here, but my guess is we’ve done more meetings with members of Congress and staff over the last month than probably any other company has. And part of that is to answer the questions face to face or video face to video face and clear up the misconceptions. We want to be open. And so, if people have questions, we’re happy to answer them again. A lot of what’s in the papers and in other discussions really is just without fact. And so, the fact is this is a platform that can be trusted and millions of Americans and families rely on the entertainment that this app provides. And we’re going to continue to do that.

Tom: Most of your meetings with members of Congress and other government officials these days, are they mainly virtual or some of them face to face?

Michael: Virtual, as face to face as a video call can be.

Tom: Right.

Scott: So is this fun? I don’t mean the podcast, but I mean,

Michael: The podcast is fun [laughter] the best thing I’ve done all morning.

Scott: That’s good. It’s only 10:30. So we’ve still got some potential. But I mean, you knew what you were getting into with this, you’ve jumped into a hard job. Do you enjoy it?

Michael: I absolutely love it. I love it. The company is terrific. And the people I work with are really collaborative and smart, and they’re doing this for the right reasons. And again, the opportunity to come in, like TikTok is at a very unique stage. And so like, yes, we’re getting big and yes, we’re having and getting a lot of attention, but this is a company it’s like two years old, you know? And so it’s still so new. We’re still the early stages where we’re not going to get everything right, but there’s a willingness in the company to do better, do more than some of our predecessors and learn from the mistakes of the past and put the systems in place to ensure that this is a company that can be trusted and can be more transparent and more accountable than anybody in the industry has been prior. And you can see that we’re, these are not just hollow statements that we make. I mean look at some of the products and some of the things that we’ve rolled out, everything from the transparency centers, which are going to be unique and really provide more of a look into business sensitive things that we’re doing than any other company has done. When you look at the tools that we’ve rolled out over the last few months for parents, from our family pairing mode, that allows parents to pair their app with their teenagers to control screen time. And other privacy features, something that I think families have been calling on for a long time, to have a more simple way to do parental controls. Particularly now as young people are home in the house and probably folks are spending a lot of time on their phone, to give parents that visibility and that control for their teenagers, to make decisions that are better for them. And even for the ways we do direct messaging and other features on the app, there’s no DMs for user under 16 as a safety precaution, we don’t allow photographs or off app videos to be shared and direct messaged, which is something that we’ve heard from groups like NICMIC and family online safety and other groups, that is a major, major, trouble spot as it relates to inappropriate content and content that can be damaging for kids. And so we’re putting these things in place and we’re looking for other areas where you can put things in place. And so when we have conversations with lawmakers, it’s not just to educate them and talk about what we’re doing, but it’s also to get feedback. What are the things that you wish a company like us could do or put in place? And we’re making efforts to do that. And so for me, that’s fun, being able to work on that is fun and I’m confident we’ll be successful and we’ll be around for years to come.

Scott: Can we go back to China, just for a second? Your favorite topic, I’m sure. I was just looking at ByteDance’s website, and I’m wondering, was there a process to make TikTok itself more independent from its parent or from, I don’t know whether there was any interaction with other companies from ByteDance? I mean, there’s this company Douyin, I don’t know how to pronounce it, that uses TikTok’s logo and it looks like it that’s TikTok in China, are these all completely separate things?

Michael: It is complete separate. So it’s confusing for people because there’s a number of different entities with the ByteDance name. And so I’ll walk through it. You have, in China, you have a company ByteDance, that is the company that originated everything. There’s Douyin, which you mentioned, which is a similar app to TikTok that exists in the Chinese market and a number of other apps and businesses for China that operate under ByteDance China. Separate from that, there’s the global holding company and global parent, which is also called ByteDance. And that’s where our board of directors sits. That’s where all of our global investors sit, from SoftBank, Goldman Sachs, General Atlantic, all the, Sequoia, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, all the big, big names in venture capital and private equity who’ve backed every other successful tech company over the last decade or so, they sit at that level and that’s where TikTok flows up to. So TikTok flows up into the global parent where our international board sits and that, and so there is separation and the decision making comes from our CEO, Kevin Mayer, who was at Disney for many years, and now serves both as the CEO of TikTok, but also he wears the hat of chief operating officer for ByteDance. And that’s ByteDance at the global level, not the piece in China. And so again, as we were able to explain this to people, it starts to make a little bit more sense. I know these things can be confusing and the legal structure of global companies are often like this, but we’re set up in a way, in particular with TikTok not operating in China and having the app not there, we feel puts us in the best position to protect Americans user data. And we’re committed to doing that.

Tom: Let me just ask one final question and then let you go. Do you think TikTok is at somewhat of an advantage? Have you learned from the problems that have faced other social, other platforms, and how they’ve handled it, and are you somehow able to anticipate those and put measures in place before they get out of hand? Is that something that is of benefit to you? With coming along later, basically.

Michael: Yeah. I mean, that’s the plan. I mean, I hope we all can learn from the past, both good and bad, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I mean, really this company has a big heart, I think you can see that from the role that the company, even as a startup and not as a public company, took during the early days of the COVID pandemic, of donations and support for our community and medical workers in the US and around the world and in the policies that we’re rolling out, we’re trying to get it right. The era, I think when you, we didn’t get that question so much, but you asked about techlash. There are a lot of reasons, and that could be a whole separate podcast about why that came about after the very long honeymoon that the industry had, where it can do no wrong. And it was like the bright, shiny, perfect thing that existed. And the industry has brought a lot of good. The companies that exist in the internet sector, I do believe, are a positive force, but the techlash is a real thing and came about for a number of reasons. And we’re learning from that. And so two key pieces of it, and what we’re trying to do more and better than really anybody’s ever done before, and frankly, we have to, because of a lot of the misinformation and mistrust from certain corners that are coming at us right now, is to be a lot more transparent, but more important than that, to be accountable. And that’s what we’re doing. And so I think when people get a chance to see what’s on the app and what the contents like, and talk to us and learn about the policies and procedures and protections we’re putting in place, they feel a lot better about it.

Tom: Well, we will have to have another podcast on the techlash, but thank you very much, Michael, for putting up with some difficult questions. I know you’re pretty practiced at answering them, but still in all we really appreciate it and appreciate your time. And thanks very much. 

Micheal: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.