TikTok pivots to new countries as US scrutiny increases

Key Points
  • TikTok is turning its focus to new markets as it tries to rebrand itself from being labeled a Chinese app.
  • It comes as the wildly popular social media app faces growing scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, including a new bill introduced Monday by one of its biggest critics, Sen. Josh Hawley, R.-Mo.
  • The company has attempted to downplay concerns that it suppresses negative content and that user data is shared with TikTok parent ByteDance.
The Logo of social media app TikTok (also known as Douyin) is displayed on a smartphone on December 14, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.
Thomas Trutschel | Photothek | Getty Images

TikTok is pivoting to new markets as it tries to distance itself from being labeled a Chinese app.

In an internal memo, Zhang Yiming, CEO of TikTok parent ByteDance, urged the company to focus on adding users in less-popular markets as a means of diversifying TikTok's growth, according to a Reuters report. Yiming also detailed TikTok's need to improve user data protection, as well as better manage global public affairs.

TikTok has emerged as one of the most popular social media apps used by American teens. Its rapid growth has caught the eye of the U.S. government, which has zeroed in on the app over fears it poses national security risks. ByteDance now faces a probe from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and the investigation could expand to look at any risks generated by the data that TikTok collects.

A new bill introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., on Monday aims to limit the flow of sensitive data about U.S. users to China. The bill, called the "National Security and Personal Data Protection Act," targets TikTok and Apple by prohibiting them from storing data on U.S. users in servers located outside the country. It also prevents companies from collecting more user data than is necessary to conduct business.

"Current law makes it far too easy for hostile foreign governments like China to access Americans' sensitive data," Hawley said in a statement. "If your child uses TikTok, there's a chance the Chinese Communist Party knows where they are, what they look like, what their voices sound like, and what they're watching. That's a feature TikTok doesn't advertise."

TikTok head Alex Zhu seems to be intent on changing that perception. In an interview with The New York Times, Zhu asserted that TikTok user data is stored separately from ByteDance data and isn't used to improve algorithms or other tools outside the app.

The app predominantly serves up content that's focused on memes, lip-syncing and other lighthearted themes, which has raised concerns that it suppresses negative content. TikTok signaled its efforts to maintain this experience when it banned political ads in October.

However, Zhu told the Times that TikTok's stance on political discourse in the app could change. In the future, TikTok may allow political content that "still aligns with this creative and joyful experience," he added.

Read the full report from The New York Times here.

Government launches national security review of TikTok: Reuters