TikTok is one of the world’s most popular apps, allowing some 800 million users worldwide to make and watch addictive short videos.
It is the international version of the Chinese app Douyin, which was launched by Beijing-based tech conglomerate ByteDance in 2016.
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But with its explosive popularity has come accusations of content censorship ” something that Douyin routinely does in the Chinese market ” and concerns of data security.
As US-China tensions have worsened, some American lawmakers have expressed skepticism over the relationship between TikTok and the Chinese government and accused the short-video app of being a national security risk. The Trump administration has said it is considering banning the app in the country.
TikTok’s success is the result of a shrewd purchase by ByteDance, which was founded in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, 37, a serial entrepreneur and software engineer who graduated from China’s Nankai University.
After finding success with Douyin, ByteDance acquired the lip-syncing video app Musical.ly in 2017. At the time, Musical.ly had 60 million users in the US and Europe, the vast majority of whom were teenagers or younger. The reported price was “nearly $1 billion.”
The company then merged Musical.ly with TikTok in 2018 and relaunched it to the overseas market.
The next year, it became the second-most downloaded social media app worldwide, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower, behind only the messaging service WhatsApp.
It reached 2 billion downloads in April 2020, when many stayed home to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the market research firm said.
TikTok is now the undisputed champion of Chinese internet products abroad.
As TikTok has topped most-downloaded charts across the world, the company has also faced mounting scrutiny and criticism.
In February 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission fined the company $5.7 million for gathering data on users younger than 13 years old.
In late 2019, US government agencies and multiple branches of the US armed forces, including the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard, banned TikTok from employee phones, citing potential national security concerns.
In June 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese-made apps, saying they threatened India’s “sovereignty and integrity.” The ban came two weeks after a deadly border conflict between India and China.
India is TikTok’s largest overseas market and the country was the app’s biggest driver of new downloads in the first quarter of 2020. A report from the Chinese news outlet Caixin estimated that TikTok could lose $6 billion in revenue from the ban.
TikTok also faces criticism for censorship. In November, a teenager’s TikTok account was suspended after she called on her followers to pay attention to the Chinese government’s mass detention of the largely Muslim Uygur minority group in the region of Xinjiang. TikTok later apologized and restored the account.
TikTok is making a massive effort to distance itself from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and has repeatedly said it does not share users’ data with the Chinese government.
In June, Chinese tech media outlet PingWest reported that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has cut Chinese employee’s access to code bases for its overseas products, in an effort to quell regulatory scrutiny.
But despite the hurdles, TikTok remains one of the hottest social media platforms in the world.
It has also fought off copycat apps such as Facebook’s Lasso. Two years after launching the TikTok clone, the American social media giant said it would shut it down in July 2020.
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