6 ways TikTok is countering political scrutiny—and a potential ban—in the U.S.
The Trump administration is considering banning TikTok, the wildly popular short video platform, over national security concerns and TikTok’s alleged vulnerability to Chinese government censorship and data sharing.
TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance Ltd. and has 30 million monthly active users in the U.S., has denied U.S. claims about its susceptibility to Chinese government influence. But President Donald Trump’s targeting of the app has only increased since he mentioned a potential ban earlier this month; new Trump campaign ads on Facebook this week claimed, “TikTok is spying on you.”
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Growing political scrutiny of TikTok in 2019 had already prompted the app to increase transparency, distance itself from ByteDance, and deny claims that it shares user data with Beijing or complies with its censorship requests. Scrutiny of the app has only accelerated in recent weeks with India’s TikTok ban in late June and the U.S.’s subsequent threat of a ban.
TikTok no doubt has become a flashpoint for the West’s disputes with China. In response, the app has taken six actions that seem aimed at underscoring its commitment to the U.S. and proving its operational independence from its Chinese parent—and from China’s government:
1. U.S. jobs
At the start of 2020, TikTok had 500 full-time staff in the U.S.; that number has since increased to 1,400. On Tuesday, TikTok said it plans to hire 10,000 employees for “good-paying jobs” in the U.S. over the next three years, a long-term commitment to the market that could foster good will in Washington. TikTok has offices in New York City, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles.
A sharp increase in staff isn’t the only way TikTok is expanding its U.S. presence. The company has hired more than 35 lobbyists to advocate on its behalf in Washington to persuade lawmakers that it’s committed to U.S. regulations and not beholden to the Chinese government. TikTok had no lobbying presence in Washington a year ago, according to the New York Times.
3. Transparency centers
TikTok has made other signals of commitment to the U.S. market. In March, the company said it was setting up a “transparency center” in its Los Angeles office to “provide outside experts an opportunity to directly view how our teams at TikTok go about the day-to-day challenging, but critically important, work of moderating content on the platform.”
Even before the threat of a U.S. ban, the company came under fire for allegedly censoring content deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese government, a charge TikTok denies.
TikTok blocked and then unblocked one U.S. user who posted a video criticizing China’s government for its treatment of Uighur ethnic minority people. The company said a “human moderation error” caused the removal of the video.
4. Localization efforts
TikTok has made moves to localize its U.S. business and show the international market that it’s separate from its China-based parent company.
In May it hired former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, who is American, to run TikTok. (Mayer holds dual roles as TikTok’s CEO and ByteDance’s chief operating officer.) TikTok has pointed to Mayer’s U.S. roots when asked about the Chinese government data-sharing allegations.
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy in the U.S.,” a company spokesperson told CNBC in July.
5. Rebuking Beijing
TikTok also taken cues from U.S.-based Internet giants in responding to political issues related to Beijing. After the Chinese government enacted a controversial national security law in Hong Kong, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others announced they were halting some operations in the region while they reviewed the law, which grants Hong Kong authorities far-reaching power over Internet data.
TikTok went further, announcing on July 6 that “in light of recent events,” it was withdrawing from Hong Kong entirely. The company didn’t directly name the national security law, but analysts say the decision to pull out of Hong Kong was a direct response to the law and an effort by TikTok to illustrate its distance from Beijing and willingness to take issue with Chinese government data controls.
6. Potential sale
Some U.S.-based ByteDance investors are in talks with ByteDance management to buy a majority stake in TikTok, The Information reported on Tuesday.
Such a sale would make TikTok majority-owned by U.S. shareholders rather than by Beijing-based ByteDance, and potentially could convince U.S. lawmakers that a ban of TikTok isn’t necessary.
Larry Kudlow, a White House economic adviser, said last week that a TikTok spinoff from ByteDance would be better than a ban on the popular app.
“I think TikTok is going to pull out of the holding company, which is China-run, and operate as an independent American company,” Kudlow said, declining to comment on whether U.S. companies could acquire TikTok.
Even before the Trump administration publicly leveled the threat of the TikTok ban, the app was looking beyond the U.S. market and its tens of millions of American users.
In November, when U.S. lawmakers escalated their scrutiny of TikTok, ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming said in an internal staff note that the company needed to “diversify TikTok’s growth,” “increase investment in weaker markets,” and improve its skill in “handling global public affairs,” without specifically mentioning U.S. pressure.
The number of countries where TikTok is facing pressure has grown this year. Outside of the U.S., TikTok was banned in India last month, and some politicians have called for bans in Australia and the U.K.
TikTok has been mulling a global HQ outside of China since late last year to distance itself from its Chinese owner, and it’s reportedly still considering London—its existing hub in Europe—as a base. The ongoing U.K.-China feud, which saw the U.K. recently ban Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from its 5G rollout, had cast doubt on whether TikTok would continue its U.K. expansion plans.
“It’s very clear that ByteDance [is] trying to do as much as [it] can to make TikTok a separate company that operates globally, thinks globally, and does not think and act like a Chinese company,” Dev Lewis, a fellow at Hong Kong–based research think tank Digital Asia Hub, told Fortune earlier this month. Whether its efforts succeed remains to be seen since, as Lewis said, “TikTok will always be caught in the middle” of China’s geopolitical disputes.