Chinese-owned social media application TikTok is reportedly under investigation by the US government as a potential national security risk, with the company’s acquisition of American social media app Musical.ly in 2018 being highlighted, as reported by Reuters on Friday.
The buyout was never formally approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the government body tasked with investigating acquisitions and investments by foreign companies in the US, as TikTok never explicitly requested permission.
Reuters reported that two sources have claimed that the CFIUS launched an investigation into Tik Tok, which could force ByteDance, the Chinese start-up which owns Tik Tok, to reverse the merging.
Tik Tok told Reuters that “While we cannot comment on ongoing regulatory processes, TikTok has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the US. Part of that effort includes working with Congress and we are committed to doing so”.
It would not be the first time that CFIUS has forced the end of a foreign social media purchase. In March 2019, the body forced Chinese conglomerate Kunlyn Tech to sell dating app Grindr after it deemed the purchase to be a breach of national security.
Despite seeming like an innocent platform primarily used by teenagers to film and share short video clips with each other, Tik Tok has faced criticism for its connections to China in recent months.
Despite the company being officially registered in the US, while also storing its data in the country and keeping backups in Singapore, it has come under further scrutiny for allegedly exporting Chinese censorship.
“Our data centres are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law”, Tik Tok claimed in a statement published in October.
TikTok has stressed that its new guidelines are written without external influence.
“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China” the company said.
“We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period. We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
ByteDance operates a sister app, Douyin, for the Chinese market which shares many of TikTok's features.
US Senator Marco Rubio requested that CFIUS review the acquisition of Musical.ly in October, asking why TikTok had “only had a few videos of the Hong Kong protests that have been dominating international headlines for months".
Last month I asked @USTreasury to conduct a CFIUS review of @tiktok_us. Because any platform owned by a company in #China which collects massive amounts of data on Americans is a potential serious threat to our country.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 1, 2019
In September, the Guardian reported that previous moderation guidelines, used until May this year, explicitly instructed moderators to drop references to Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, or Taiwanese independence.
The opening of the investigation comes amid a trade war between the US and China, with both sides putting foreign-owned enterprises on blacklists in recent months, restricting domestic industry from purchasing from their respective rivals.
The US also claims that it is restricting Chinese investment and the involvement of technology giants such as Huawei from the US market, as their connections to the Chinese ruling Communist Party make it a threat to security and data privacy.
China has adamantly rejected the accusations, saying that the US is afraid of fair competition and Chinese firms are no threat to national security.