TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (2023)

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9:47 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent

From CNN's Brian Fung

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (1)

As part of its case to distance itself from China, TikTok has said it does not operate in that country or offer its app to Chinese users.

That has raised questions about the difference between what TikTok users see in their feeds and what Chinese users see on Douyin, the local equivalent of TikTok from the same parent company, ByteDance.

Some public reports have suggested that content on Douyin is more educational and achievement-focused than what TikTok users tend to receive.

TikTok took a step in that direction earlier this month, announcing a third feed that would recommend science, technology, engineering and math content.

Security researchers who've studied both apps say that while TikTok and Douyin may offer different features, the underlying software is very similar, suggesting they are both developed from the same code base and tailored separately for specific markets.

9:31 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

Dozens of TikTok creators hold news conference to argue against a ban

From CNN's Catherine Thorbecke

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (2)

Some TikTok creators spoke out against a potential US ban of the app in a news conference on Wednesday evening hosted by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York.

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Standing in front of dozens of TikTok creators on Capitol grounds, Bowman called the attacks on TikTok unfair and defended how the app promotes free speech and community-building among Americans from diverse backgrounds. He called for “comprehensive legislation” that targets all social media platforms, not just TikTok.

“Let's not be racist towards China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok," Bowman said, "because American companies have done tremendous harm to American people."

Bowman was joined at the conference by fellow Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Robert Garcia of California, as well the TikTok creators, some of whom TikTok may have flown in to Washington.

One of the creators, disability advocate Tiffany Yu, said that TikTok was what allowed her advocacy work to take off. “TikTok has really been a game-changer for me,” Yu said. “It's allowed me to reach new audiences, millions of people, unlock new ways to generate income to support my advocacy and empower an entire group of disability advocates to find their voice and build their careers.”

Yu added that TikTok has allowed her to secure “six figures of creator income” and that she now has a book coming out in 2024. So to Congress, I urge you to consider the impact that a ban on TikTok would have on advocates like myself,” she said. “A ban takes away the connections we've built, silencing communities that continue to be underrepresented and not given a voice.”

9:31 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

Here's what you need to know as the US government is once again threatening to ban TikTok

From CNN's Catherine Thorbecke

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (3)

TikTok acknowledged to CNN that federal officials aredemanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stakein the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app.

The new directive comes from the multiagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), following years of negotiations between TikTok and the government body. (CFIUS is the same group that previously forced asale of LGBTQ dating app Grindrfrom Chinese ownership back in 2019.)

The ultimatum from the US government represents an apparent escalation in pressure from Washington as more lawmakers once again raise national security concerns about the app. Suddenly, TikTok’s future in the United States appears more uncertain – but this time, it comes after years in which the app has onlybroadened its reach over American culture.

Here’s what you should know.

Some in Washington have expressed concerns that the app could be infiltrated by the Chinese government to essentially spy on American users or gain access to US user data. Others have raised alarms over the possibility that the Chinese government could use the app to spread propaganda to a US audience. At the heart of both is an underlying concern that any company doing business in China ultimately falls under Chinese Communist Party laws. Other concerns raised are not unique to TikTok, but more broadly about the potential for social media platforms to lead younger users down harmful rabbit holes.

This echoes the saga TikTok already went through in the United States that kicked off in 2020, when the Trump administration first threatened it with a ban via executive order if it didn’t sell itself to a US-based company. Oracle and Walmartwere suggested as buyers, social mediacreators were in a frenzy,and TikTok kicked off alengthy legal battleagainst the US government. Some critics at the time blasted then-president Donald Trump’s crusade against the app as political theater rooted in xenophobia, calling out Trump’s unusual suggestion that the United Statesshould get a “cut” of any dealif it forced the app’s sale to an American firm.

The Biden administration eventually rescinded the Trump-era executive order targeting TikTok, but replaced it with a broader directive focused on investigating technology linked to foreign adversaries, including China. Meanwhile, CFIUS continued negotiations to strike a possible deal that would allow the app to continue operating in the United States. Then scrutiny began to kick up again in Washington.

Lawmakers renewed their scrutiny of TikTok for its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance, after areportlast year suggested US user data had been repeatedly accessed by China-based employees. TikTok has disputed the report.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew responds: “The Chinese government has actually never asked us for US user data,” Chew said in rare remarks at a Harvard Business Review conference. “and we’ve said this on the record, that even if we where asked for that, we will not provide that.” Chew added that “all US user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure” and “access to that data is completely controlled by US personnel.”

As for the concerns that the Chinese government might use the app to spew propaganda to a US audience, Chew emphasized that this would be bad for business, noting that some 60% of TikTok’s owners are global investors. “Misinformation and propaganda has no place on our platform, and our users do not expect that,” he said.

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9:18 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

Here are the countries that have banned TikTok on government devices

From CNN staff

A growing number of countries have banned TikTok from official government devices:

The United States: More than half of all US states have partially or fully banned TikTok from government devices, according to a CNN analysis, reflecting a wave of recent clampdowns by governors and state agencies targeting the short-form video app.

The United Kingdom: The social media app is not widely used by UK officials, according to a governmentannouncement. “This is a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices,” UK Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden told lawmakers Thursday.

Canada: The ban is set to take effect on Tuesday. Government-issued devices will be blocked from downloading TikTok, and existing installations of the app will be removed, according to astatementby the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat."Following a review of TikTok, the Chief Information Officer of Canada determined that it presents an unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security," the statement said.

Belgium: After an analysis from the country's state security VSSE, the national security council has temporarily banned federal government employees from installing TikTok on their devices, according to Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s office. “We should not be naive: TikTok is a Chinese company that is now obliged to cooperate with Chinese intelligence services. That is the reality. Banning its use on federal service devices is common sense,” De Croo said in a statement. The ban will last six months after which it will be reassessed, the statement from Belgium’s Prime Minister’s office said.

The Netherlands: The government said its decision follows the advice of AVID, its general intelligence and security service, which states that there is an increased espionage risk. The Dutch Government said in a statement that it is working on facilitating mobile devices set-up in “a way that only pre-approved apps, software and/or functionalities can be installed and used,” adding that exceptions are allowed “when such an application is or may be necessary for the performance of a primary task of a government organization.”

New Zealand: Based on the advice of cyber security experts, TikTok will be removed from all devices (of parliamentary staff and members) that have access to the parliamentary network,Parliamentary Service Chief Executive Rafael Gonzalez-Monterosaid.

The European Union has also done the same: TikTok is banned on official devices over security concerns across all three of the bloc's main institutions — the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council. The parliament also “strongly recommended” to its members and staff to remove TikTok from their personal devices.

India banned TikTok in 2020 as its tensions with China escalated, saying they pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity.” This move forced ByteDance to lay off some of its workers in the country.

9:10 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

US launches criminal investigation into TikTok parent ByteDance, media reports say

From CNN's Brian Fung

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (4)

The US government has launched a criminal investigation into TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, over improper access to the personal information of several US citizens, according toForbesandThe New York Times.

News of the investigation, which reportedly involved a subpoena to ByteDance along with a number of interviews by the FBI, comes after TikTokconfirmed in Decemberthat four ByteDance employees had been fired in connection with the incident, following an internal review.

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Two of the fired employees had been based in China, and two were based in the United States, TikTok said at the time. Among the TikTok users who were surveilled were two journalists, including the Forbes journalist who on Friday first reported the Department of Justice probe.

The DOJ, FBI and the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is also reportedly involved in the probe, previously declined to comment. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

The surveillance that led to the firings saw ByteDance employees accessing device information such as IP addresses used by the journalists. Theinitial reportsabout the incident suggested the employees had been hunting for the source of leaks to the press. There is currently no evidence the Chinese government directed or participated in the surveillance.

9:00 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

TikTok collects a lot of user data — like Facebook and Twitter

From CNN's Brian Fung

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (5)

Multiple privacy and security researchers who’ve examined TikTok’s app say there aren’t any glaring flaws suggesting the app itself is currently spying on people or leaking their information.

In 2020,The Washington Postworked with a privacy researcher to look under the hood at TikTok, concluding that the app does not appear to collect any more data than your typical mainstream social network. The following year, Pellaeon Lin, a Taiwan-based researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, performedanother technical analysisthat reached similar conclusions.

But even if TikTok collects about the same amount of information as Facebook or Twitter, that’s still quite a lot of data, including information about the videos you watch, comments you write, private messages you send, and — if you agree to grant this level of access — your exact geolocation and contact lists. TikTok’sprivacy policyalso says the company collects your email address, phone number, age, search and browsing history, information about what’s in the photos and videos you upload, and if you consent, the contents of your device’s clipboard so that you can copy and paste information into the app.

TikTok’s source code closely resembles that of its China-based analogue, Douyin, said Lin in an interview. That implies both apps are developed on the same code base and customized for their respective markets, he said. Theoretically, TikTok could have “privacy-violating hidden features” that can be turned on and off with a tweak to its server code and that the public might not know about, but the limitations of trying to reverse-engineer an app made it impossible for Lin to find out whether those configurations or features exist.

If TikTok used unencrypted communications protocols, or if it tried to access contact lists or precise geolocation data without permission, or if it moved to circumvent system-level privacy safeguards built into iOS or Android, then that would be evidence of a problem, Lin said. But he found none of those things.

“We did not find any overt vulnerabilities regarding their communication protocols, nor did we find any overt security problems within the app,” Lin said. “Regarding privacy, we also did not see the TikTok app exhibiting any behaviors similar to malware.”

There have also been a number ofstudiesthat report TikTok is tracking users around the internet even when they are not using the app. By embedding tracking pixels on third-party websites, TikTok can collect information about a website’s visitors, thestudieshave found. TikTok has said it uses the data to bolster its advertising business. And in this respect, TikTok is not unique: the same tool is used by US tech giants including Facebook-parent Meta and Google on a far larger scale, according toMalwarebytes, a leading cybersecurity firm.

9:00 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

Why the US government is worried about the Chinese government's influence on TikTok

From CNN's Brian Fung

The US government has said it is worried China could use its national security laws to access the significant amount of personal information that TikTok, like most social media applications, collects from its US users.

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The laws in question are extraordinarily broad, according to westernlegal experts, requiring “any organization or citizen” in China to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work,” without defining what “intelligence work” means.

Here are some concerns:

  • Should Beijing gain access to TikTok’s user data, the information could be used to identify intelligence opportunities — for example, by helping China uncover the vices, predilections or pressure points of a potential spy recruit or blackmail target, or by building a holistic profile of foreign visitors to the country by cross-referencing that data against other databases it holds.
  • Even if many of TikTok’s users are young teens with seemingly nothing to hide, it’s possible some of those Americans may grow up to be government or industry officials whose social media history could prove useful to a foreign adversary.
  • If China has a view into TikTok’s algorithm or business operations, it could try to exert pressure on the company to shape what users see on the platform — either by removing content through censorship or by pushing preferred content and propaganda to users. This could have enormous repercussions for US elections, policymaking and other democratic discourse.

Security experts say these scenarios are a possibility based on what’s publicly known about China’s laws and TikTok’s ownership structure, but stress that they are hypothetical at best. To date, there is no public evidence that Beijing has actually harvested TikTok’s commercial data for intelligence or other purposes.

Chew, the TikTok CEO, has publicly said that the Chinese government has never asked TikTok for its data, and that the company would refuse any such request.

If there’s a risk, it’s primarily concentrated in the relationship between TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, and Beijing. The main issue is that the public has few ways of verifying whether or how that relationship, if it exists, might have been exploited.

TikTok has been erecting technical and organizational barriers that it says will keep US user data safe from unauthorized access. Under the plan, known as Project Texas, the US government and third-party companies such as Oracle would also have some degree of oversight of TikTok’s data practices. TikTok is working on a similar plan for the European Union known as Project Clover.

But that hasn’t assuaged the doubts of US officials, likely because no matter what TikTok does internally, China would still theoretically have leverage over TikTok’s Chinese owners. Exactly what that implies is ambiguous, and because it is ambiguous, it is unsettling.

In congressional testimony, TikTok has sought to assure US lawmakers it is free from Chinese government influence, but it has not spoken to the degree that ByteDance may be susceptible. TikTok has also acknowledged that some China-based employees have accessed US user data, though it’s unclear for what purpose, and it hasdisclosed to European usersthat China-based employees may access their data as part of doing their jobs.

9:00 a.m. ET, March 23, 2023

TikTok says it has 150 million users in the US

From CNN's Catherine Thorbecke

TikTok doesn't operate in China, but there's a local equivalent (6)

TikTok now has 150 million monthly active users in the United States, CEO Shou Chew confirmed on Tuesday, in a clear attempt to highlight the platform’s vast and growing reach in the country amid renewed calls for a ban.

“That’s almost half the US coming to TikTok to connect, to create, to share, to learn, or just to have some fun,” Chew said in a TikTok video on Tuesday, adding that the figure also includes about five million businesses that use TikTok to reach customers.

A growing number of lawmakers in the United States and abroad have raised national security concerns about the short-form video app because of TikTok’s ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance.

TikTok acknowledged to CNN last week week that federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app. In 2020, when the Trump administration made a similar threat, TikTok said it had 100 million US users.

“Now, this comes at a pivotal moment for us,” Chew said in the video Tuesday. “Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok, now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”

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FAQs

What is the equivalent of TikTok in China? ›

Instead, there's a different version of TikTok — a sister app called Douyin. Both are owned by Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, but Douyin launched before TikTok and became a viral sensation in China.

Why is my TikTok not working in China? ›

Despite its parent company being from China, TikTok is unavailable in the country, and a Chinese version called Douyin is used instead. If you're wondering how to unblock TikTok, you will need to use a VPN.

Is TikTok not available in China? ›

Fact: TikTok, which is not available in mainland China, has established Los Angeles and Singapore as headquarters locations to meet its business needs. That is in keeping with ByteDance's approach to aligning business needs to the markets where its services operate. ByteDance does not have a single global headquarters.

Can China see TikTok? ›

Analysis: There is now some public evidence that China viewed TikTok data. US officials have long insisted the Chinese government may be able to view the personal information of TikTok users — but that claim was purely speculative.

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