• The popular app has said it’ll cease operations in Hong Kong ‘within days’ following controversial Chinese security law
  • The decisive move comes as the Chinese app faces mounting scrutiny by foreign governments over data privacy and sharing with Beijing
  • US Secretary of State yesterday said the country was “certainly looking at” banning the video-sharing app 

Downloaded significantly more than 315 million times through the first quarter of 2020, the short-form video app TikTok has rocketed to success amid the pandemic – providing entertainment and interaction for most stuck inside during lockdown. 

But as data privacy concerns around the platform owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance heighten, that winning streak could be at an increased risk. 

The firm has announced it will likely be halting its operations in Hong Kong “within days”, following the introduction of a controversial national security law gives Chinese authorities sweeping new powers. While the app joins internet giants like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google and Telegram in reviewing operations in the area, TikTok’s step further has been seen as a bid to lay to rest suspicions of its cooperation or control with the Chinese government. 

ByteDance launched the company for users outside mainland China to grow its world wide audience, and operates the same but heavily-censored app in China called Douyin. 

With user numbers gathering, TikTok has faced ongoing scrutiny from governments around the globe, driven by leaks purporting to show that the platform censors material that harms China’s foreign policy aims or mentions the country’s human rights record, and that it collects more data than its users would are expecting – nearly all of its users are beneath the age of 25. 

TikTok was one of 59 Chinese apps barred from its biggest market in India alongside popular messaging app WeChat beneath the premise to be national security threats and using data illegally, but following clashes at the India-China border in the Himalayas. TikTok could lose billions of dollars in advertising revenue as a result of that ban.

A ban in the US?

Yesterday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok over concerns it absolutely was or might be being used by Beijing as a surveillance and propaganda tool, even with ByteDance committed to establishing a “Transparency Center” at TikTok’s Los Angeles, California office. 

In the EU, a panel of EU authorities has now decided to investigate and examine the short video app’s activities throughout the 27-nation bloc, while Australian liberal senator Jim Molan yesterday said TikTok might be “a data collection service disguised as social media,” after Nationals MP George Christensen called for an outright ban on the ByteDance-owned app, accusing it of being “used and abused” by the Chinese government. 

TikTok has widely denounced claims that it shares data with governments and has stated that it wouldn’t achieve this if asked. The company has dismissed concerns that we now have “CCP cells” within its ranks “We place the greatest importance on user privacy and integrity,” said TikTok Australian general manager, Lee Hunter. The company’s new CEO, former Walt Disney executive Kevin Mayer, has also said in the past none of the app’s user data is stored in China. 

“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” said a TikTok US spokesperson. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we achieve this if asked.

“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders […] here in the US,” the company said. 

TikTok has a relatively small audience in Hong Kong, and after losing its Indian market, its departure from the market is just a strategic and symbolic move it will hope to convince governments of its autonomy from Beijing. The move is a decisive sacrifice, but one that could pay off in regards to perceptions among key markets in Europe and the US.

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