Behind the social network TikTok, the Chinese intelligence leader ByteDance

the essential
Behind the success of TikTok, a Chinese digital giant, ByteDance with operations and practices that are not very transparent.

TikTok is definitely not a social network like the others. Not only because it has met with dazzling success all over the world, but above all because unlike other well-known social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…), it is not American but Chinese. This is the first time that China, which has many social networks for its domestic market (such as WeChat), has managed to export one of its creations. And if in less than six years, TikTok has risen to the top, it’s because its owner has the means to match his ambitions. Here, no geeks in a garage but ByteDance, a company created in 2012 by Zhang Yiming in Beijing and which has become the Chinese leader in artificial intelligence technologies.

In 2016, ByteDance, which cut its teeth with Toutiao, a system for recommending articles and personalized content, launched Douyin, a platform for sharing short videos, the international version of which was introduced the following year: TikTok. And the least we can say is that ByteDance gives itself the means of its ambitions to conquer the world. In August 2018, the company raised nearly $3 billion, making it the most valuable start-up in the world, at $75 billion, ahead of Uber.

At his bedside foreign investors such as the Japanese giant Softbank and its investment fund Vision Fund, but also Americans such as the venture capital fund Sequoia Capital, or KKR, General Atlantic or Hillhouse Capital Group.

Phenomenal growth

ByteDance’s growth is phenomenal and the company – like the giants of Silicon Valley – makes acquisitions: in 2017, it acquired the application News Republic, a news aggregator, in 2018, the competing video platform Musical.ly . Having become essential, it is forging agreements with smartphone manufacturers Samsung and Huawei.

But above all, with a workforce of some 60,000 people, it continues to invest massively in its core business: artificial intelligence, i.e. algorithms which, by making very detailed personalized recommendations, are the engine of social networks and particularly of TikTok, whose operation is very addictive.

Surveillance and censorship

But behind the technique, the administrative organization worries by its opacity. Who really runs ByteDance? What does the company do with the personal data of users around the world? ByteDance, like any Chinese digital company, is closely watched by the communist power which has placed the Internet behind a large firewall, and which has easy censorship… Douyin, the Chinese TikTok, thus sees its content subject to the implacable imprimatur of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Personal data and security

Abroad, TikTok is suspected of being an instrument of influence or even propaganda in the service of the Chinese regime. In 2020, TikTok, which has exceeded one billion users, is banned in India and then in Pakistan. In the United States, the application then becomes the pet peeve of Donald Trump who accuses him of espionage. The ex-president signs a decree to ban TikTok, WeChat and eight other Chinese applications, and triggers a legal battle. In September 2020, the American operations of TikTok were thus technically taken over by Oracle. TikTok is also entering into a commercial partnership with Wallmart.

The success of TikTok
DDM – Philippe Rioux

Joe Biden elected, he revokes the executive orders and calls for an investigation to “identify all connected software applications that may pose an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States and the American people”. But for an official of the FCC, the American telecoms regulator, the banishment of TikTok seems inevitable.

Overwhelming Leaks

Last June, audio leaks from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, indeed, showed that China-based ByteDance employees repeatedly accessed non-public data about US TikTok users… sees in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said at a meeting in September 2021. This week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said TikTok poses a national security risk to the United States. …

The question of personal data is thus the Achilles heel of TikTok. The European Data Protection Board is also investigating. In France, seized of a video deletion complaint, the CNIL is investigating compliance with the general data protection regulations (RGPD).

Despite its difficulties, TikTok, which has opened offices all over the world, tries to prove its good faith, creating a moderation center here in Los Angeles or refusing paid political advertisements. ByteDance even promises to provide access to the application’s source code.

It remains to be seen whether these efforts will be considered sufficient or too late…

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