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Explained: Why TikTok is under the scanner in the US

Senior US senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton have called for an investigation into whether TikTok poses a national security threat. What are the fears in US? Has the social media app responded?

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | New Delhi |
Updated: October 28, 2019 6:36:17 pm
Explained: Why TikTok is under the scanner in the US? TikTok is now the second most downloaded app, just behind Facebook’s WhatsApp.

TikTok is in the news once again. Days after coming under fire for what some call censoring of content around the Hong Kong protests, senior US senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton have called for an investigation into whether the social video app poses a national security threat.

What is TikTok?

The app lets iOS and Android users create and share short lip-sync, comedy and talent videos. Launched by Chinese tech giant Bytedance in 2016, the app merged with the Musical.ly a year later to acquire users in countries like India. The app has clocked well over a billion downloads along with Douyin, the Chinese version of the app. Globally, it is now the second most downloaded app, just behind Facebook’s WhatsApp.

What are the fears in US?

US Senators fear TikTok is a national security threat and want regulators as well as the security agencies to probe the company’s links with the Chinese government. Schumer, the Senate’s senior Democrat, in his letter to Joseph Macguire, acting director of national intelligence, said: “With over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore.”

The letter, also signed by Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, reminded that questions have also been raised regarding the “potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content”. He was referring to reports that TikTok “censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs”.

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They also claimed that “while the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores US user data in the US, ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China”.

How has TikTok responded?

In a statement released in response to the Senators’ letter, TikTok said it stores all TikTok US user data in the United States, with “backup redundancy in Singapore”. “Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law. Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices.”

On concerns over content, TikTok clarified that it “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China” and has never been asked by the Chinese government to do so. It also said its US moderation team, “led out of California”, reviews content for adherence to US policies like other US companies in the space. “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”

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What has been TikTok’s experience in India?

Like in other parts of the world, TikTok has become immensely popular in India with over 200 million users. Unlike other successful apps, TikTok is very popular in smaller towns too and has benefitted from the surge in mobile Internet users in India over the past three years. This April, the Madras High Court lifted its three-week-old ban on downloading TikTok app after a plea claimed it was propagating pornographic content and making children vulnerable to predators.

During the time, ByteDance Director (International Public Policy) Helena Lersch had told PTI that the company was strengthening its content moderation policies and was looking to invest $1 billion in India over the next three years.

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First published on: 28-10-2019 at 12:16:45 pm
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