ByteDance has stepped up efforts to separate its social media app TikTok from much of its Chinese operations, amid a US national security panel’s inquiry into the safety of the personal data it handles, people familiar with the matter said. The Chinese technology company is seeking to provide assurances to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that personal data held by TikTok, which is widely popular with US teenagers, is stored securely in the United States and will not be compromised by Chinese authorities, the sources said.
CFIUS, which reviews deals by foreign acquirers for potential national security risks, is looking into ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of social media app Musical.ly in 2017, which laid the foundations for TikTok’s rapid growth, Reuters reported earlier this month.
ByteDance’s response represents a key test of corporate China’s ability to operate businesses in the United States that handle personal data, as US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China fans suspicion between the world’s two largest economies.
ByteDance is hoping to avoid the fate of Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech, which said in May it would agree to a CFIUS request to divest popular gay dating app Grindr following concerns about the security of personal data. It is also exploring exiting its investment in Grindr through an initial public offering.
ByteDance started to separate TikTok operationally before CFIUS approached it in October, because it wanted some of its staff to focus on TikTok, according to the sources.
It completed the separation of TikTok’s product and business development, marketing and legal teams from those of its Chinese social media app Douyin in the third quarter of this year, according to the sources, who requested anonymity to discuss the company’s internal arrangements.
During the summer, it also hired an external consultant to carry out audits on the integrity of the personal data it stores, the sources added. The company has said US user data is stored entirely in the United States, with a backup in Singapore. It has also said that the Chinese government does not have any jurisdiction over TikTok content.
Following the approach by CFIUS, TikTok is making a new push to set up a team in Mountain View, California, that will oversee data management, according to the sources. This team will determine whether Chinese-based engineers should have access to TikTok’s database, and monitor their activity, the sources said.
TikTok is also hiring more US engineers to reduce its reliance on staff in China, according to the sources.
It is not clear how effective these changes will be in appeasing CFIUS. A spokeswoman for the US Treasury Department, which chairs CFIUS, said it does not comment on information relating to specific CFIUS cases.
“Shifting a company’s operations away from China, geographically and technically, can give CFIUS more comfort that the company is really independent of its Chinese owner and the Chinese government,” said Nevena Simidjiyska, a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild LLP who advises companies on CFIUS reviews and is not involved in the TikTok case.
TikTok employs about 400 people in the United States, up from 20 people at the time of the Musical.ly acquisition, the sources said. Most of the new employees joined this year, as TikTok built its US operations, the sources added. ByteDance has 50,000 employees around the world.
U.S. lawmakers called last month for a national security probe into TikTok, expressing concern that the Chinese company may be censoring politically sensitive content, and raising questions about how it stores personal data. Last week, US Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the US military is undertaking a security assessment of TikTok.
The CFIUS probe is currently focused on the handling of personal data, rather than censorship, according to two of the sources. ByteDance views the CFIUS investigation as informal, and has not yet been subjected to an official review, one of the sources added.
Some of the personal data that TikTok stores, such as a person’s name, age, email address and phone number, is submitted by its users. Other information, related to a person’s location, is collected automatically, according to TikTok’s website. TikTok also stores user-generated content, such as photographs and videos.
Launched just two years ago, TikTok has been downloaded 1.5 billion times, making it the third most downloaded non-gaming app of the year, after Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger apps, according to research firm SensorTower.
ByteDance is one of China’s fastest growing startups. It owns the country’s leading news aggregator, Jinri Toutiao, as well as TikTok, which has attracted celebrities like Ariana Grande and Katy Perry.
ByteDance counts Japanese technology giant SoftBank Group, venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, and private equity firms such as KKR & Co, General Atlantic and Hillhouse Capital Group as backers.
TikTok Sale: Algorithm Question Said to Complicate Deal
Sale talks for TikTok’s US operations have been complicated by the key question of whether the app’s core algorithms can be included as part of a deal, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal that cited unidentified people familiar with the matter.
Those algorithms decide what videos users see without first requiring them to follow other users or specify their preferences. The Journal report stated the algorithms were considered part of the deal negotiations up until Friday.
That’s when the Chinese government introduced export restrictions on artificial intelligence technology that appear to cover content-recommendation algorithms such as the one powering TikTok. The move followed President Donald Trump’s effort to force a sale of TikTok’s US operations by September 20.
Those export restrictions mean that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, would have to obtain a license to export any restricted technologies to a foreign company. The question is whether its algorithms would need Chinese government approval for transfer, and if so, whether Beijing would sign off.
The Journal report said both the prospective buyers and the seller, ByteDance, are trying to figure that out. Prospective buyers for US TikTok assets include a Microsoft-Walmart team-up and, reportedly, Oracle.
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TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer Quits After Three Months, Just as Firm Challenges US Ban
TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer has left the Chinese-owned video app firm just three months since joining, and only days since the company sued the administration of US President Donald Trump over an executive order effectively banning it in the United States.
He will be replaced by US General Manager Vanessa Pappas on an interim basis, TikTok said in a statement.
The resignation comes at a tricky time for super-fast growing TikTok as it tries to persuade both the United States and India that it is not a security threat, while at the same time holding discussions with prospective buyers following a second US order demanding the sale of its US operations.
In another development, former TikTok India manager Raj Mishra has been appointed by Triller as Country Manager and Head of Operations for the country. Mishra was the very first employee to be hired at TikTok India. In his new role at Triller, he will be leading and furthering the development of video-sharing app’s products, operations, and overall business goals.
“In recent weeks, as the political environment has sharply changed, I have done significant reflection on what the corporate structural changes will require, and what it means for the global role I signed up for,” Mayer said in an letter to employees.
“Against this backdrop, and as we expect to reach a resolution very soon, it is with a heavy heart that I wanted to let you all know that I have decided to leave the company.”
ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming said in a separate letter reviewed by Reuters that the company was “moving quickly to find resolutions to the issues that we face globally, particularly in the US and India”.
He said Mayer had joined just as the company was “entering arguably our most challenging moment.”
“It is never easy to come into a leadership position in a company moving as quickly as we are, and the circumstances following his arrival made it all the more complex,” Zhang said.
ByteDance employees told Reuters they were not surprised by Mayer’s decision given TikTok’s unpredictable future, and also because the ex-Disney executive has not had a significant role in some important decisions as he was still new to the team.
Zhang has been the key person in TikTok sale talks, said two people with knowledge of the matter. But Mayer represented TikTok to discuss with senior executives of interested buyers just days ago, a third person said.
TikTok’s decision to launch a $200 million (roughly Rs. 1,478 crores) “creator fund” in July was spearheaded by TikTok’s former head Alex Zhu, though Mayer was also directly involved, said two of the people. The project was initiated internally much earlier than Mayer’s arrival, one of the people said.
“The learning curve was steep for him, from daily operations to geopolitical implications,” said one of the people.
ByteDance did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
“Whether TikTok reaches an agreement to sell its US business or decides to duke it out in the courts, the role for Mayer will not be anything like that he had envisioned when he joined,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing.
Mayer’s departure is not a great boost for company morale right now, Natkin said.
US India Challenges
Amid growing distrust between Washington and Beijing, Trump complained that TikTok was a national security threat and could share information about users with China’s government.
Trump issued an executive order banning US transactions with TikTok on August 6, effective in mid-September. He issued a separate order about a week later giving ByteDance 90 days to divest of TikTok’s US operations and data.
ByteDance has been in talks to sell TikTok’s North American, Australian and New Zealand operations which could be worth $25 billion (roughly Rs. 184,816 crores) to $30 billion (roughly Rs. 221,801 crores) to companies including Microsoft and Oracle, people with knowledge of the matter have said.
The company has also been targeted in India, where TikTok was one of 59 Chinese apps banned by the Indian government in June following a border clash between India and China.
That month, Mayer wrote to India’s government saying China’s government has never requested user data, nor would TikTok turn it over if asked.
TechCrunch reported earlier this month that ByteDance was in talks with India’s Reliance for investment in TikTok.
TikTok has become a global sensation since ByteDance launched the app in 2017, with operations in countries such as France, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil. In April, the app hit 2 billion downloads globally.
© Thomson Reuters 2020
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