TikTok stuck in a cycle of international scrutiny

Li Qian
TikTok appears to be on a roller coaster, or, more precisely, trapped in an endless cycle of being stumped by growing international scrutiny.
Li Qian

TikTok only took about three years to become the most downloaded app in the world, vaulting to the top of a category long dominated by Western companies. As a result, all the controversy, publicity, and problems are almost certainly unavoidable.

But here's the thing: TikTok appears to be on a roller coaster, or, more precisely, trapped in an endless cycle of being stumped by growing international scrutiny. A widespread ban and forced sale scheme have followed.

Due to privacy, security, and child safety concerns, an increasing number of countries have banned TikTok from government devices, if not entirely. They are the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada, the European Union, India and New Zealand.

According to Xinhua, the US in particular "enacted a heinous political stunt to portray TikTok as a national security threat."

According to a recent Associated Press report, Congress, the White House, the US armed forces, and more than half of US states have already banned TikTok because they are concerned that user data will end up in the hands of the Chinese government.

Why? Because ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, is based in China. TikTok now has 150 million monthly active users in the United States, accounting for nearly half of the country's total population, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew confirmed early last week.

Is it, however, a genuine threat?

According to ByteDance, overseas investors such as US investment firm Carlyle Group own 60 percent of the company's shares, while its employees and founders own 40 percent.

During the marathon hearing in the United States a few days ago, Chew also emphasized efforts to protect American data, emphasizing that "American data is stored on American soil."

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning stated in a regular press conference, "The Chinese government has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information, or intelligence located abroad in violation of local laws." Despite the fact that the US government's allegations against TikTok are without merit, "it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt."

Anyway, whether it's a matter of cybersecurity censorship, politics or a "xenophobic witch hunt," as some claim, TikTok's watershed moment appears to have arrived: a massive permanent ban or a sell-out.

Let's take a look at the ups and downs of its brief existence.

TikTok stuck in a cycle of international scrutiny

TikTok is in trouble as it expands.


May 2017

ByteDance launched TikTok as the international version of its domestic video-sharing app, Douyin.

July 2018

Indonesia banned TikTok for containing "pornography, inappropriate content, and blasphemy." But the ban was lifted within a week after TikTok agreed to censor "negative content."

August 2018

ByteDance merged Musical.ly with TikTok after it acquired the popular video-sharing app in the US for around US$1 billion in November 2017.

January 2019

Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data showed TikTok was the No. 4 most downloaded app for all of 2018, with more than 667 million first-time downloads.

February 2019

TikTok was fined US$5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission over allegations of illegal collection of information about children. It was the largest civil penalty issued by the agency in a child privacy case.

Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data showed TikTok surpassed 1 billion downloads on Apple's App Store and Google Play.

November 2019

Reuters reported the US Committee on Foreign Investment has opened a review into ByteDance over its acquisition of Musical.ly.

January 2020

Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data showed TikTok was installed more than 739 million times in 2019. It was also the second-most-downloaded app across the App Store and Google Play globally in 2019, surpassed only by WhatsApp's 849 million downloads.

April 2020

Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data showed TikTok hit 2 billion downloads globally. In the first quarter of 2020, it generated the most downloads of any app ever in a quarter, accumulating more than 315 million downloads across the App Store and Google Play.

June 2020

The European Union opened an investigation over TikTok's privacy policies after the Netherlands began to scrutinize its policies about children's data protection.

India imposed a nationwide ban on 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, over security concerns. The ban was made permanent in January 2021. Before, India had been the biggest downloader of TikTok, accounting for more than 30 percent of the total, according to Sensor Tower's Store Intelligence report in April 2020.

August 2020

Then US President Donald Trump issued two executive orders, barring ByteDance from doing business with any US firms and giving TikTok 90 days to either spin off its business in the US or sell it to a US company.

TikTok revealed detailed user numbers for the first time. It has had about 100 million monthly active US users, up nearly 800 percent from January 2018.

September 2020

TikTok formed preliminary agreements with Oracle and Walmart to establish TikTok Global so as to operate its business in the US and some other regions of the world. But the deal was shelved.

February 2021

US President Joe Biden has paused legal action against TikTok.

June 2021

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order, revoking President Trump's orders aimed at banning TikTok.

July 2021

Sensor Tower Store Intelligence data showed TikTok has become the first non-Facebook mobile app to reach 3 billion downloads globally.

September 2021

TikTok announced it has 1 billion monthly active global users, on par with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

December 2021

Cloudflare data showed TikTok has surpassed Google to become the most popular website in 2021.

June 2022

TikTok said it has completed transferring US user data to servers at Oracle.

July 2022

TikTok has established a US data security division known as "USDS" to protect US user data and implement Project Texas, a plan in which US user data is stored on domestic servers run by Oracle.

December 2022

US President Joe Biden approved banning TikTok from government devices.

January 2023

Apptopia data showed TikTok was the most downloaded app in 2022, garnering 672 million new installs around the world.

February 2023

Canada announced it would ban TikTok from all government-issued devices.

The European Commission, the European Parliament, and the EU Council have announced plans to ban TikTok from staff phones.

March 2023

Denmark's Defense Ministry has announced that it will ban its employees from having TikTok on their work phones.

The UK has said that government ministers and civil servants who use mobile phones will not be able to use the app TikTok.

France has announced it will ban "recreational" use of TikTok and other apps like Twitter on government workers' phones.

TikTok's chief executive officer, Shou Zi Chew, attended a testimony held in the US. Before that, he revealed TikTok now has 150 million monthly active users in the US.

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