Zuckerberg blasts Facebook rival TikTok for censorship in China, and he might be right

Key Points
  • In a speech today at Georgetown University on free speech, Zuckerberg chastised ByteDance-owned TikTok for censoring content.
  • In a public statement, TikTok refuted Zuckerberg's allegations.
  • But media reports and researchers claim the popular app suppresses content that offends Beijing.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg draws strong reaction to free expression speech
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg draws strong reaction to free expression speech

In his speech Thursday at Georgetown University on free speech, Mark Zuckerberg briefly called out Facebook's young Chinese-owned competitor TikTok.

"While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S.," Zuckerberg said in reference to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. "Is that the internet we want?"

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, is a mobile app on which users can share and easily edit short videos. The app uses a machine-learning algorithm to present content tailored to each user and has exploded in popularity across the U.S. Facebook considers TikTok a competitor, and the start-up has even opened an office close to Facebook's headquarters so it can poach employees.

TikTok has come under fire, however, for allegedly suppressing content that Beijing deems politically unfavorable, such as the protests in Hong Kong, as the Washington Post first reported. TikTok refutes these reports.

"The Chinese government does not request that TikTok censor content, and would not have jurisdiction regardless, as TikTok does not operate there," a TikTok spokesperson told CNBC in response to Zuckerberg's comments. "To be clear: We do not remove videos based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content."

But that's not the full story. While TikTok does not operate in China, ByteDance has a nearly identical app called Douyin, which is only available in China and researches say is strictly censored and used as a vessel for propaganda by the ruling party, according to the The Washington Post. TikTok says its U.S. operation is entirely separate from the operations of its parent company in China.

Zuckerberg went on in his speech to position Facebook's lack of regulation of speech in stark contrast to the suppression prevalent on the Chinese internet.

"Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values," Zuckerberg said. "There's no guarantee these values will win out."

How TikTok's Chinese owners might be influencing its content
How TikTok's Chinese owners might be influencing its content