While all parties have agreed, in principle, to the proposed Oracle/Walmart lead takeover of TikTok, which seemingly meets both the US and Chinese Government’s requirements for the deal to proceed, the actual details are still being worked out, with some disagreement over what, exactly, will be included in the sell-off of the app.
Which now leads to the next potential problem for the app.
Originally, TikTok had until September 20th – last Sunday – to arrange a separation deal, or it would face removal from the US app store. That came close to happening, until the Oracle/Walmart deal was seemingly on track for approval, and as such, the US Department of Commerce agreed to give TikTok an extra seven days to finalize the new arrangement.
Which means that the app’s deadline is now this Sunday, and if the takeover deal is not signed off by then, TikTok will indeed be removed from US app stores, meaning that while current users will still be able to use the app, no one else will be able to get it until the deal gets the final go-ahead.
TikTok is still adding new users at a solid rate, and as such, it’s fairly keen to avoid an app store ban – and now, as a sort insurance policy in case the Oracle deal drags on, TikTok has requested an injunction against its pending app store ban, citing a lack of evidence and just cause in the White House executive order.
And it may well get it – late last week, a US Magistrate ruled that the same ban on WeChat, which was also named in the original White House Executive Order, could not go ahead due to lack of evidence in relation to the concern that the app is a threat to national security.
As per Judge Laurel Beeler:
“While the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China (regarding technology and mobile technology) is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest”.
TikTok could argue the same. In fact, it’s already stated that case in its commentary on the proposed US Government ban, in a post entitled ‘Why we are suing the Administration‘ published last month.
As per TikTok:
“The Executive Order issued by the Administration on August 6th, 2020 has the potential to strip the rights of [our] community without any evidence to justify such an extreme action, and without any due process. We strongly disagree with the Administration’s position that TikTok is a national security threat and we have articulated these objections previously.”
Indeed, while various concerns have been raised about TikTok’s potential links to the Chinese Government, and while the app has been banned for use on US, UK and Australian military-issued devices, the actual evidence of TikTok or parent company ByteDance sharing data with the Chinese regime seems very thin – or at least it’s not available publicly.
TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which, as a Chinese company, is beholden to China’s strict cybersecurity laws, which require businesses to share their user data on request, would seemingly have to share such, if the CCP requested it. But we have no evidence that any such demand has been tendered, nor will be any time in future.
Speculation also exists around TikTok’s algorithms and its potential to amplify pro-China messaging, but again, the actual evidence is limited in TikTok’s specific case. Moderation guidelines used by employees of the Chinese version of the app, ‘Douyin’, were leaked to the press late last year, and they clearly showed that its moderators had been advised to censor anti-China content. But Douyin and TikTok are not the same, and TikTok has explained these specific guidelines were never applied in its app.
So while the concerns are valid, and there is some basis to the considerations, the evidence for enforcement may not hold up in court. At least, it didn’t in WeChat’s case.
That could mean that TikTok will be able to avoid an app store ban, if a takeover deal is not reached, which would definitely not look good for the Trump administration and its stated intention to restrict the app.
That could, once again, put TikTok in the spotlight, and make the US Government even more determined to force a full sell-off of the app to US-based ownership.
Basically, the TikTok takeover saga is not over yet, and while it still seems likely that the parties will come to some form of agreement to let TikTok continue operating in the US, that’s still not a given, and it could face removal from app stores in just a few more days.