TikTok tick-tock – time is running out for the popular Chinese-owned social media app

By Tom Flynn, Partner

Social media app TikTok made headlines recently when President Trump issued an executive order effectively banning it from operating in the US unless its American operations are sold. Microsoft and Twitter have both expressed interest in acquiring the platform. 

At best, this will seriously hamper its new targeted advertising platform but some experts in the US believe the order could have wider implications – effectively banning Apple and Google from offering it via their app stores.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time for an app that has seen its popularity explode during lockdown, with bored zoomers (the platform’s user base is still predominantly generation Z but the percentage of older users is growing) spending on average 45 minutes per day browsing its video based content.

And that isn’t all – Facebook in particular are determined to see off the threat from TikTok. Having tried and failed with Lasso, they have now launched Reels on Instagram in a blatant play for TikTok’s young audience with a strikingly similar offering.

But why is TikTok so controversial? As with most online security concerns, it’s all about the data. Depending on the access permissions you grant the app, TikTok collects a lot of data including location, phone contacts and contacts on other social media sites. The US isn’t alone in worrying about who has access to this data – TikTok has already been banned in India. 

And whilst ByteDance, the Chinese technology company that owns TikTok, insists it is free of state interference, their behaviour has been questionable at times. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that they were unlawfully collecting MAC addresses on Android devices – a huge breach of Google’s terms of use which would allow TikTok to continue to identify an individual user even if they reset their advertising settings.

So how should organisations respond to this? If you’re not already advertising on TikTok, now really isn’t the time to start, especially if you’re hoping to reach a US audience. And if you’re already there, it’s worth considering a plan B for the uncertain months ahead.