App: What's next for Tiktok?

Things are getting serious for Tiktok: A US law that is intended to force a change of ownership of the short video app is now in force. The ultimatum could change Tiktok for all users.

The clock is ticking for Tiktok: The popular short video app will no longer be available in the USA if it still belongs to the China-based company Bytedance in a year. Tiktok also has similar problems to other online platforms: extremist posts, potentially dangerous trends, allegations of addictiveness. But in this case, U.S. policy brings to the fore the risk of data collection and propaganda by China.

What's happening now?

First of all, nothing immediately. The law gives Bytedance nine months to sell Tiktok to a US-accepted investor. US President Joe Biden can extend the deadline by another three months if he sees progress in the sales negotiations. However, Tiktok has already made it clear that they first want to go to court and exhaust all legal means. The company's first move is likely to seek an injunction suspending the countdown.

What are the chances that courts will stop the law?

That's not entirely unrealistic. Tiktok criticizes the plan as a violation of the freedom of speech enshrined in the US Constitution. And a similar law in the state of Montana was struck down by a court precisely because of such concerns. As a federal law, the current approach has a more solid legal basis than Donald Trump's threat of a ban via presidential decree in 2020. At that time, judges also found that he exceeded his authority.

Why should Tiktok get a new owner?

Advocates of the change in ownership point to two risks in particular: Chinese authorities could gain access to information from the more than 170 million US users – and China could misuse the platform to manipulate public opinion. Tiktok always countered that they had never received such requests from the authorities and would not have complied with them. The law generally prohibits apps from operators that are classified as adversarial.

Is there any evidence of such Tiktok dangers?

At least not publicly accessible ones. Some US members of Congress said after confidential briefings by the FBI and secret services that they were shocked by China's ability to use Tiktok for data collection and propaganda. But no details have been revealed yet.

What could theoretically be learned from Tiktok data?

Knowing what millions of people in a country are interested in can be very helpful for rival states. It is even more valuable if you know the profiles of individual people – and researchers have repeatedly demonstrated how, by analyzing data from various sources, even anonymous accounts can provide conclusions about specific people. Tiktok denies that anything like this happens. At the same time, online espionage from China is actually very real. According to experts, several major data hacks came from the country.

If Tiktok is so dangerous, why did Biden's campaign team and Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently come onto the platform?

Young people can be reached there. This is particularly important for Biden before the presidential election in November – and that's why a Tiktok ban was always controversial in his Democratic Party.

What could the law mean for users in other countries?

Tiktok is not expected to be banned from European app stores. But: The app could change for everyone. Tiktok's recipe for success is the algorithm that decides which clip will be shown next. The software also analyzes how long you watch a video before continuing to scroll.

It is questionable whether the algorithm would be included if Tiktok were sold. In the USA there are more efforts to replace it with domestic technology. The app might then feel a little different. In addition, popular Tiktokers could migrate to other platforms due to the impending US ban – after all, Instagram and YouTube also have a short video function.

Is the USA the first country in which Tiktok is threatened with extinction?

No, India banned Tiktok back in 2020 along with dozens of other Chinese apps. Users and video creators mainly switched to YouTube and Instagram.

Was the EU Commission also conducting investigations against Tiktok?

Yes, but that's a different problem. The commission was offended by the fact that the service in France and Spain launched an app called Tiktok Lite, which allows users to collect points for watching videos, without a risk assessment. The authorities fear this poses a risk of addiction. Tiktok suspended the function. Because of the China risks, the commission instructed its employees last year to delete the app on work phones.

Are Bytedance and therefore Tiktok even Chinese?

The company itself denies this. The central justification is that Bytedance is 60 percent owned by international investors and the registered office is on the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. The counterargument is that the Chinese founders, with a 20 percent stake, maintained control thanks to higher voting rights and that Bytedance has a large headquarters in Beijing, which means it cannot escape government influence. Among other things, reference is made to a law that requires cooperation with inquiries from security authorities.

How does Tiktok say it handles user data?

The service always assured that American users' data would only be stored in the USA and Singapore. In order to gain trust, Tiktok relied on “Project Texas”: data storage only in the USA, access to it and the app's source code being monitored by experts from the US company Oracle. That didn't convince US politicians. Similar measures are underway in Europe with “Project Clover” in Ireland.

Could Tiktok survive without a store in the US?

Possible, after all, the app has more than a billion users. However, the USA is an important online market – and the rise of rival short video platforms there could also rub off on other regions of the world.

Who could buy Tiktok – and how expensive could it be?

A fair price could be tens of billions of dollars. The American tech giants, who could easily handle something like this, are most likely not considered buyers for competitive reasons. Former US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has already announced that he is organizing an investor group. It is unclear who will take part.