Seen the headlines about TikTok and China floating around on Facebook? Here’s what you need to know.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media app that, unlike Facebook or Twitter, is primarily driven by the sharing of meme-like short-form videos range from 15 seconds to 60 seconds in length.
Some videos are Vine-like attempts at scripted comedy. Others involve lip-syncing over music or dialogue from a movie or TV show. Sometimes, a good TikTok just provides you a brief snippet into someone else’s life or a foreign country you’ll never visit. It’s a bit chaotic to behold but addictive to consume.
Regardless, the fastest way to understand TikTok is to download the app and start watching. You’ll get the idea soon enough.
How big is TikTok?
According to Datareportal, TikTok has 500 million active monthly users worldwide as of 2019 - just under a third of which are located in China.
How is it connected to China?
To begin with, TikTok's parent company ByteDance are based in China.
Of course, in order to better understand the relationship between TikTok and China, you really have to understand the evolution and growth of the company behind the app.
Founded in 2012, ByteDance’s business empire was largely built on the back of their popular machine learning-enhanced news app Toutiao and their first video sharing app Neihan Duanzi. Toutiao is interesting enough to merit an article of its own, however, Neihan Duanzi is of particular relevance when looking at the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese government.
In 2018, Neihan Duanzi ran afoul of Chinese authorities after it was accused of hosting “vulgar” and “improper” content. The app was fast removed from Chinese app stores and quickly “sunset” by ByteDance.
Following this controversy, ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming released a statement saying that “our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values.”
At the time, Zhang promised that ByteDance would look to “further deepen cooperation with authoritative media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, ensuring that authoritative media voices are broadcast to strength.”
Practically, this involved ByteDance giving preference to Communist Party members when hiring new employees and bringing on-board another 4,000 in-house censors.
Fast forward several years, app launches and acquisitions to 2016, ByteDance launch a new video-sharing app called Douyin in China.
Within the first year, Douyin had garnered 100 million users. Then, in September 2017, ByteDance relaunched the app into international markets under a new name: TikTok.
There was just one problem: TikTok’s biggest rival Musical.ly was already dominant in the markets that ByteDance was looking to conquer, specifically the United States.
The fastest way to overcome this hurdle? Buy out the competition.
ByteDance did exactly that - acquiring Musical.ly in late 2017 for $1 billion. Shortly thereafter, the company merged the two apps into the single united TikTok you can find on the iOS and Play Store today.
But as TikTok continues to grow in popularity worldwide, you have to wonder how ByteDance would handle another Neihan Duanzi-style conflict with Chinese authorities, how securely the company store the data of international users and what role the company’s in-house censors could have in shaping the kind of content and voices that are allowed (or not allowed) on the platform.
Why is that a concern/problem?
ByteDance’s past willingness to appease the Chinese government have led some to raise concerns about the company’s relationship with those same authorities.
As is often the case with Chinese tech controversies, the main concerns come down to online censorship and data security.
The former, based on ByteDance’s previous commitments to deepen ties the Communist party, recently came to the fore when the company banned a user for posting a video drawing attention to the mass incarceration of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang by the Chinese government.
Regardless, given both their recent and long-term track record, it’s easy to speculate and fear how TikTok could be used to suppress (or elevate) certain political views at the expense of others. You could argue that ByteDance already do this through Douyin - which continues to run and placate censors within the Chinese market.
ByteDance have complied with Chinese censors before and there’s no reason to think they won’t again in the future. Regardless of whether that hypothetical cooperation concerns the data or videos of TikTok users, it’s confronting reality.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics has previously warned that the “app could become a Huawei-sized problem in terms of the access to the West potentially afforded to Chinese security services.”
TikTok CEO Alex Zhu has previously told The New York Times that “the data of TikTok is only being used by TikTok for TikTok users” and that he would personally turn down any requests by the Chinese government to censor any politically-minded content.
Zhu gave similar assurances to the Wall Street Journal, insisting “the Chinese government has never asked us to provide access to any TikTok US user data, and we would not do so if asked.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that ByteDance might be willing to compromise the data security of those who use its app at the behest of the Chinese government.
These concerns stem from a Chinese intelligence law that requires companies like ByteDance cooperate with the Chinese government when it comes to spying or matters of national security.
As per Article 6 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, “All organisations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of.”
As much as TikTok and ByteDance might protest otherwise, a face-value reading of this legislation asserts that both organisations and individuals that operate in China are ultimately beholden to requests of support for any national intelligence work asked of them.
Should you be worried?
Given ByteDance's past when it comes to dealing with China's authorities, it's hard to have that much faith in how secure the data of TikTok users really is. No amount of assurances from TikTok themselves can erase that track record and the precedent it set. TikTok can insist otherwise but, when push comes to shove, ByteDance will probably play nice with the CPC.
Whether or not that's reason enough to delete or avoid signing up for an account on TikTok is up to you. There's nothing we know of that suggests that TikTok is openly sharing the data of users with the Chinese government or collaborating them to quash online dissent. However, if news broke tomorrow that these fears had come to pass, would you be that surprised?
TikTok is a lot of fun but it's disconcertingly easy to imagine how it could all go off the rails.