TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have been hit by a ban in India as part of a wider crackdown on apps of Chinese origin.
But there may be trouble brewing for the companies in the US, too, due both to the political jockeying around hardball trade negotiations between the US and China, and specific regulatory issues with TikTok in the US.
Speaking to Fox News this week, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked if the US might ban TikTok and other social media apps from China.
“We are taking this very seriously. We are certainly looking at it,” he said. “We have worked on this very issue for a long time.”
Pompeo went on to bracket the issue with previous measures taken against Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE: “With respect to Chinese apps on peoples’ cellphones, the United States will get this one right too.”
(What’s more, when asked about TikTok specifically, and whether Americans should use it, Pompeo replied: “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”)
TikTok was swift to respond and defend itself, in a year where it has been keen to be seen as taking steps to separate its western operations.
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US. We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” a spokesperson told CNBC. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
TikTok’s troubles in the US are not just about the US-China situation, however. Long-running scrutiny over the app’s policies around children’s privacy is bubbling up again.
In February 2019, TikTok agreed to pay US regulator the FTC $5.7m in a settlement of an investigation into whether it had illegally collected personal information from children, dating back to the days of Musical·ly – the app that ByteDance bought then merged with TikTok in 2018.
(Obligatory reminder that Musical·ly had nothing to do with us, Music Ally.)
As part of that settlement, TikTok agreed to comply with the US’s COPPA children’s privacy legislation, but yesterday Reuters reported that the FTC and US Justice Department are “looking into allegations” that it has not fulfilled those obligations. This follows calls by groups including The Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in May for the FTC to open a new investigation.
TikTok is defending itself here too – pointing to its “limited app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for a younger audience” for under-13s in the US. It will get to have its say in any new investigation, as will its critics.
However the potential for a new COPPA-related probe, plus the comments from Pompeo, plus the still-rumbling copyright row with music publishers, are suddenly making the US look like a market fraught with pitfalls for TikTok and its parent company.
TikTok remains a fascinating platform in terms of its grassroots fan activity around music, and the potential for partnerships with artists and labels. But the music industry will also be closely watching the wider landscape of political brinksmanship and regulatory action as it develops.