TikTok, Facing Possible U.S. Ban, Claims It Has 150 Million American Users

TikTok, trying to fend off a potential U.S. government ban over security fears related to the app’s Chinese ownership, is touting new figures reflecting how pervasive and popular it is in America.

TikTok announced that as of February 2023, the short-form video app has more than 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. In addition, it said, it has almost 7,000 employees in the United States. And it also claims that TikTok “has evolved into the preferred platform” for nearly 5 million American businesses, most of which are small and midsize companies.

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“We’re honored to be a home for our immensely diverse community in the United States, made up of nearly half the country’s population, including book lovers, foodies, families, emerging artists and so much more,” the company said in the announcement.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, in a video message posted to the platform, boasted that the 150 million-plus users in the U.S. represents almost half of the country’s population. “Now this comes at a pivotal moment for us,” Chew said. “Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok. Now, this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”

Chew, appointed TikTok’s CEO in 2021, noted that he is scheduled to appear Thursday (March 23) before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to testify on TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices. In the video, recorded in Washington, D.C., Chew said that in his testimony he will “share all that we’re doing to protect Americans using the app and deliver on our mission to inspire creativity and bring joy.” He added, “Let me know in the comments what you want your elected representatives to know about what you love about TikTok.”

Separately, TikTok on Tuesday announced an update to its community guidelines, which included a new requirement that “synthetic media” depicting realistic scenes — i.e., deepfakes — “must be clearly disclosed” using a sticker or caption (such as “synthetic,” “fake,” “not real” or “altered.” In addition, TikTok now explicitly bans deepfakes that include “the likeness of any real private figure” and prohibits synthetic media of public figures “if the content is used for endorsements or violates any other policy.”

That’s amid a backdrop of the White House’s apparent demand that ByteDance, the Beijing-based internet company that controls TikTok, divest its ownership stake in TikTok or face a U.S. ban. ByteDance has not indicated whether it is considering complying with the U.S. demands. TikTok said in a statement last week, “If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.”

Meanwhile, pending congressional legislation, which has bipartisan support, would grant President Biden the authority to ban TikTok under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The fear is that the Chinese government could access sensitive information via TikTok. According to TikTok, it has never shared user data with the Chinese Communist Party; the company also says Chinese authorities have not made any such requests. TikTok’s Chinese ownership has caused governments worldwide to be wary of the app. India, for one, in 2020 blocked TikTok and other Chinese apps in the country.

In seeking to address the Biden administration’s concerns, TikTok — under what it has dubbed Project Texas — formed a U.S.-based data security division and has an agreement with Oracle to store user app data in the U.S. In addition, TikTok has proposed giving Oracle the ability to review app and server code as well as creating an oversight board for the U.S. security division (that would not be subject to ByteDance control) comprising three members who would be screened by CFIUS.

“Over the last two years, we’ve invested $1.5 billion in setting up TikTok U.S. Data Security and have been building a comprehensive framework to isolate U.S. user data,” the company said in its announcement Tuesday.

According to the company’s own admission, ByteDance employees have used TikTok to spy on American citizens. In December 2022, ByteDance said that four of its employees violated company policy by inappropriately accessing data on U.S. TikTok users, including two journalists, in an attempt to track down the source of information leaks. ByteDance said it fired all four of the employees, two based in the U.S. and two in China. The incident is now reportedly being investigated by the Justice Department and the FBI.

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