On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) urged the US government to launch a formal investigation into whether the famous Chinese video app, TikTok, poses a national security risk by censoring content that upsets Beijing leaders.
“These Chinese apps are increasingly being used to censor content and suppress open discussions on topics considered sensitive by the Chinese Government and the Communist Group,” Rubio said in a letter calling on the Treasury Department’s Foreign Investment Committee in the United States to carry out a full review of the possible national security risks posed by TikTok’s acquisition of Musical.ly.
The TikTok spokesperson says “Our content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team and are not influenced by any foreign government,” CFIUS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2017, ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, purchased the popular lip-syncing video app, Musical.ly. TikTok had an increasing user base outside the United States, but ByteDance was able to purchase a large American audience through its acquisition of Musical.ly. The two video services have fused together, totalling about 1 billion downloads worldwide.
In tweets on Wednesday, Rubio also called on the Trump administration “to strictly implement anti-boycott laws prohibiting any US person— including U.S. subsidiaries of Chinese companies from engaging with international boycotts that try to pressure U.S. businesses to comply with #China’s government views.” Rubio’s call for a study follows a week of backlash by American fans and customers against U.S.-based groups and businesses like the National Basketball Association and game developer Blizzard.
During the weekend, a professional Hearthstone player gave support to the Hong Kong protests in a post-game interview and Blizzard forbade him from the tournaments for a whole year.
TikTok has quickly become one of the most popular social media apps in the world, particularly among Gen Z users.
The app, operated by the Chinese company ByteDance, features user-generated videos set to a variety of songs that can be played through the device. Unlike other popular social media apps like Facebook-owned Instagram, TikTok’s video feed is not based on users following specific accounts, but rather relies more heavily on its algorithm to learn about user interests. The app was influenced by ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app developed in China that also had a large follow-up in the U.S.
At that time, TechCrunch estimated that the transaction was worth up to $1 billion. ByteDance eventually folded Musical.ly’s brand into TikTok, reflecting its broader range of content.
TikTok is not the only Chinese app to gain traction among U.S. users. Apps developed by Chinese companies or major Chinese investors created sales of $674.8 million in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2019, according to data previously collected by Sensor Tower for CNBC. “PUBG Mobile” and “Clash of Clans,” two games made by the Chinese company Tencent and one of its subdiaries, were also won by the United States.
TikTok recently announced that it would not allow paid political ads on its platform, saying that it did not fit into its overall experience.
A U.S. prosecution would contribute to the U.K. government’s scrutiny. Initiated an investigation into whether TikTok breached the European General Data Protection Regulation.