As TikTok is grilled by US senators over China links, owner ByteDance stays silent
- TikTok’s top executive addressed questions on the short video app’s links to China and the Communist Party in a hearing on social media’s impact on Wednesday
- The app’s Beijing-based owner ByteDance and the Chinese government have been largely quiet about increased scrutiny of the platform in recent months
TikTok, the most successful app in overseas markets owned by a Chinese company, is facing a wave of scrutiny in the US over concerns that user data could be accessed by employees in China and possibly handed over to the government. TikTok has made repeated assurances that it has never given data to the Chinese government, which chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas addressed again during the hearing on social media’s impact on national security.
Pappas told senators that TikTok has “very strict access controls around the type of data that they can access and where that data is stored, which is here in the United States. Under no circumstances would we give that data to China.”
While ByteDance was founded in China, Pappas said TikTok “does not have an official headquarters as a global company”. TikTok is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and has employees in China.
Amid heightened rhetoric and multiple media reports about TikTok in recent months, ByteDance has remained silent about scrutiny of its flagship product. The Senate hearing received little coverage from Chinese media, and Beijing has largely remained quiet about TikTok’s reputational struggles. One exception was in July after then-candidate for UK prime minister Liz Truss vowed to crack down on the app, to which Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded by calling the remarks “irresponsible”.
ByteDance’s main short video app in China is Douyin, which is subject to the same strict Chinese censorship rules as other domestic social media platforms. With 600 million daily active users, Douyin is used by China’s state media outlets for propaganda purposes, as it has a duty to promote “positive energy” at home.
Douyin and TikTok share parts of the same source code, and they are powered by the same root algorithm developed through machine learning. ByteDance has registered Douyin algorithms with the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, as the first of 30 batches of algorithms to be handed over the agency.
TikTok’s origins have made it an easy target of overseas suspicion as distrust between China and Western countries has deepened. TikTok was originally created as a rival to Shanghai-based Musical.ly, which had a large US user base. ByteDance eventually acquired the company and rolled it into TikTok.
With TikTok’s parent company and many of its workers still based in China, concerns have been raised about local laws that could compel the company to hand over data to the government on national security grounds.
Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, asked if any TikTok employees are members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Everyone who makes a strategic decision at this platform is not a member of the CCP,” Pappas said.
She also responded to questions about recent media reports. BuzzFeed News reported in June that US data has been repeatedly accessed from within China, where the company has a “Master Admin” with access to everything. Pappas called the allegations unfounded and said a master account does not exist.
A TikTok representative said that its “community guidelines make clear that we do not allow harmful misinformation, including medical misinformation. We partner with credible voices to elevate authoritative content on topics related to public health, and partner with independent fact-checkers who help us to assess the accuracy of content.”