The past few weeks have been excessively turbulent for Chinese short video app TikTok as the country’s international relations experience mounting unrest.
It all started in June when India banned 59 Chinese origin apps, including TikTok, from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, on grounds of security concerns amid the ongoing border dispute between the two countries. This move was soon followed by other countries raising similar concerns regarding Chinese apps, with similar backdrops of diplomatic conflict.
First, the Australian government revealed considering a move against TikTok and other Chinese apps. Soon after, the US Security of State, Mike Pompeo, also spoke of the possibility of banning the app.
Pompeo’s statement, which was made earlier this week, has since caused TikTok to scramble to maintain its place in the American market, the second largest after India.
As if to respond to this threat, TikTok has made several announcements this week that showcase its attempts to distance itself from its associations with Beijing.
But before getting into that, it is essential to understand which suspicions against the social media giant are valid and which ones are based on sensationalist tactics.
TikTok: Separating Fact from Myth
In recent times, the phrases “security concern” and “national threat” have become synonymous with TikTok and other Chinese apps. TikTok appears at the top of this list mainly due to its overwhelming growth and popularity.
Governments fear that data collected by Chinese companies automatically falls into the hands of the Chinese government.
While this might sound plausible on the surface, experts have refuted the validity of this concern because apps such as TikTok collect personal information that isn’t highly sensitive. In other words, such data is commonly collected by every social media app out there and poses a similar magnitude of the threat, even when its of Chinese origin.
Thus, a more meaningful angle to the Chinese app debate lies in looking at app vulnerabilities, privacy policies, and soft power.
Experts have pointed out several security bugs and loopholes in TikTok such as a flaw that allowed cybercriminals to replace a user’s videos with fake content without their knowledge, the app’s access to clipboard data which is often used to store passwords and pins, and an allegation which claimed that the app collected the information of those under the age of 13 without the consent of parents.
A bigger problem lies in the suppression and censorship of controversial content seen on TikTok. The Washington Post recently reported about leaked documents which revealed that the app’s content policy mandated moderators to delete all videos related to the Hong Kong protests and Tibetan independence.
When paired with the soft power TikTok lends to China (the ability to influence culture and opinions), it becomes more apparent how TikTok could be manipulated to gain a political upper hand.
Would a Restructuring Help?
All points mentioned above bring us to the current restructuring TikTok has started working towards. While security bugs are consistently fixed by all major app developers, being headquartered in Beijing doesn’t have an instantaneous solution.
According to Bloomberg, the company is discussing changing its corporate structure and shift the TikTok headquarters away from Beijing. Internal sources have revealed that the company is considering shifting base to Singapore, London, New York, Los Angeles, or Dublin.
While TikTok has discredited allegations that it shares user data with China, relocating the headquarter will give credibility to this claim and quell some of the suspicions.
Additionally, TikTok released a transparency report on Thursday. In this report, TikTok gives details regarding censorship on its platform. The company has removed 49 million videos from its platforms on the grounds of the policy violation.
Wondering, why the short video app turned a blind eye to such videos up until now.
It was seen that 25% of the content was taken down on grounds of nudity, 24% were deleted in accordance with their child protection policy, 21% were deemed as portraying illegal activities, and 1% were taken down for inauthenticity. The report also mentioned which countries these requests for censorship came from, stating that none of the requests came from China, contradicting the censorship of the Hong Kong protests reported by the Washington Post.
Besides, TikTok also appointed Kevin Mayer as its new CEO, who is stationed in and operates from Los Angeles.
Despite if all the moves made by TikTok, the future of TikTok in America, and in many other countries as well, seems uncertain for now. Although a complete ban might be a slim possibility, the company’s attempts make it clear that it is set on improving its reputation in the eyes of American regulators and smooth over conflicts as soon as possible to maintain its foothold in the American market. Not sure, if the company could turn the table anytime soon, but one thing is certain – billions of dollars of loss and competitors eating into the deserted market have put the new CEO on the bumpy ride.