It is not the first time a social media app has come into the limelight because of data security issues. Moreover, it is certainly not the first time a Chinese business has been accused of helping the Chinese Communist Party to spy on people.
TikTok is the first Chinese app that has successfully blended itself into the global culture. With over 500 million active users (as of 2018) gained global significance pretty quickly and played a significant role in making Chinese startup Bytedance one of the most successful startups on the face of the planet.
However, today, the app faces an imminent threat not by its competition, but by world governments.
After Huawei, the second-largest manufacturer of smartphones was banned by several countries and was blacklisted by Washington in May 2019, global attention was turned to TikTok.
This was primarily the result of a border tiff between India and China in a far off Himalayan Valley on June 15th. The clash left behind 20 martyrs on the Indian side and an undisclosed number of martyrs on the Chinese side.
Following the clash, the Indian government initiated an anti-China campaign within their country and banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok on the last day of June.
With up to a third of its user base coming from India, the company estimates losing $6 billion of annual revenue because of the move.
While many may think that the data security concerns of India are overblown, the Indian government has justified its move citing China’s National Intelligence Law. The law compels Chinese businesses to cooperate with providing access to their data to support Chinese intelligent gathering.
To alleviate some of these concerns, Bytedance says that their subsidiary TikTok does not operate in China. Wily Bytedance also operates a China-only version of the app called Douyin, the company assures the data of foreign citizens using TikTok is saved on foreign servers that are free from China’s National Intelligence Law.
The move to make TikTok an independent subsidiary of Bytedance came in 2018 when the Chinese government criticized and temporarily banned Bytedance owned news aggregation app Jin Toutiao for posting “vulgar content”.
At that time, Zhang Yiming, the billionaire owner of Bytedance issued a long public apology and besides promising to hire more people for Jin Toutiao’s censorship team, also initiated the process to give TikTok functional independence from Bytedance.
As a result, today, TikTok’s CEO is an American citizen who goes by the name Kevin Mayer. Mayer, who was associated with Disney before migrating to TikTok, is also the CEO of Bytedance. While he lives in Los Angeles, it is reported that he frequently travels to Beijing.
Despite the operational independence that TikTok enjoys, many global political leaders have shown concern that the app is ultimately owned by Bytedance which is a Chinese company operating within the jurisdiction of the Beijing government.
Besides India, TikTok is now facing a lot of criticism from other global leaders as well. US President Donald Trump recently said that the country is considering a TikTok ban. Other prominent US leaders such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also asked his fellow citizens to stop using TikTok unless they want their data to fall into “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is not the first time TikTok is facing allegations by leaders of one of its largest markets, The United States. The US government launched a national security investigation against the app in November 2019 and US Senator Josh Hawley stated that TikTok was “compromised by the Chinese Communist Party.”
However, the Chinese government and TikTok’s spokespersons are all denying these allegations with their own logic.
When the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was asked a question about the app’s possible ban in the US, he said that “some people in the U.S. should stop employing state power to oppress Chinese companies.”
He also said that “the Chinese government always asks Chinese companies to observe laws and regulations when doing business overseas.”
Zhao justified his argument by taking a jab at the social media networks that have originated out of the US. He said, “If we follow the logic of the U.S. side, can we say that American social media companies, with a large number of users globally, pose a grave security threat to all other countries in the world?”
TikTok also defended itself when a company spokesperson said TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US, we have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
After India and the US, members of the Australian government have also called for a TikTok ban. Australian Senator Jim Molan, who also acts as the Deputy Chair of Australia’s Foreign Interference Through Social Media Committee stated that TikTok is “a data collection service disguised as social media”.
None of this comes as a surprise to those who are familiar with TikTok’s historical involvement in the controversy. The app was banned by the Indonesian government back in 2018 after the government accused it of spreading pornographic, blasphemous, and generally inappropriate content.
The app was also fined by the US government back in February 2019. TikTok’s parent company Bytedance was fined $5.7 million by the United States Federal Trade Commission for collecting user data of minor users below the age of 13, which is a direct violation of US’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
Prompted by the event, the UK government’s Information Commissioner’s Office also launched an investigation against the company that reportedly focused on the issues of private data collection of minors.
Despite these allegations and Bytedance’s past run-ins with international governments, many continue arguing that the perceived danger from TikTok is largely hypothetical and indirect.