In brief: TikTok parent company ByteDance wants to avoid the possibility of being forced by the US Committee on Foreign Investment to sell off the popular app. As a result of being investigated on fears of working with the Chinese government, it's taking steps to distance TikTok from its Chinese business.
Following a national security review by the US Committee on Foreign Investments, the company behind TikTok is scrambling to provide assurances that personal data is stored securely and can't be compromised or tapped into by Chinese authorities.
This comes hot on the heels of criticism levied at the company for blocking a teenager that posted about China's Muslim detention camps from her account. Specifically, she made a bait-and-switch video where she asks viewers to use their phones to look up information about the phenomenon while pretending to teach them how to get longer eyelashes.
A TikTok spokesperson said the decision wasn't influenced by the Chinese government and that parent company ByteDance doesn't control the app's policies for content, which is stored in the United States.
Seeing as that is adding to the suspicions of US regulators who believe ByteDance is censoring content at the request of China, the company has started a process of separating TikTok operations from the main firm, which is based in Beijing. In just three months, the company has finished setting up product, marketing, legal, and business development teams that are now independent from those in its Chinese offices, who will continue working on social media app Douyin.
ByteDance also plans to put together a team in Mountain View, California, specifically for monitoring and controlling access to TikTok data for Chinese-based engineers. The company will also hire more US-based engineers in an attempt to curb suspicions that it's exporting user data to China.
As of writing, TikTok has around 400 employees in the US, some of which came on board as part of the Musical.ly acquisition. Owner ByteDance employs over 50,000 people around the world, and is looking to compete with the likes of Apple and Spotify for a place in the music streaming market in the near future.
TikTok, in particular, stores user-submitted personal information like name, age, email, phone number, as well as the content generated inside the app. Other than that, the app will automatically record a person's location when posting a video. And since TikTok has been downloaded over 1 billion times, regulators are right to be concerned.
Earlier this year, a number of popular apps have sparked privacy debates with their vague data policies. Examples include face filter app FaceApp and deepfake creation tool Zao, both of which attracted a significant number of users with their novelty.
In the face of public and regulatory scrutiny, ByteDance wants to avoid the situation of Kunlun Tech, the Chinese company behind gay dating app Grindr, who has been forced by the CFIUS to sell it off until 2020. The same could happen with TikTok, if ByteDance won't convince US regulators that it can protect user data from being sent to Chinese entities.