Behind the social network TikTok, the leader of Chinese intelligence ByteDance

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After 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 others. Not only because it has had tremendous success all over the world, but above all because unlike other popular 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 is because its owner has the means to fulfill his ambitions. Here, there are no people in the garage, but ByteDance, a company founded 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, whose international version was introduced the following year: TikTok. And the least we can say is that ByteDance gives itself the tools of its ambitions to conquer the world. In August 2018, the company raised nearly $3 billion, making it the world’s most valuable startup at $75 billion, ahead of Uber.

Next to him are 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 bought the app News Republic, a news aggregator, in 2018, the competing video platform Musical.ly. Having gone mainstream, it is making deals with smartphone makers Samsung and Huawei.

But above all, with a workforce of around 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 especially TikTok, the operation of which is very problematic.

Surveillance and censorship

But behind the technique, the administrative organization worries about its ambiguity. Who really runs ByteDance? What does the company do with the personal data of users around the world? ByteDance, like every Chinese digital company, is closely watched by the communist power, which has put the internet behind a huge firewall and has light censorship… Douyin, China’s TikTok, thus sees its content subject to imprimatur the relentlessness 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 crossed one billion users, is banned in India and then in Pakistan. In the United States, the app then becomes the pet of Donald Trump, who accuses it of espionage. The former president signs a decree to ban TikTok, WeChat and eight other Chinese apps, sparking a legal battle. So, in September 2020, TikTok’s American operations were technically taken over by Oracle. TikTok is also entering into a commercial partnership with Walmart.

The success of TikTok
DDM – Philippe Rioux

Joe Biden-elect, he rescinds the executive orders and calls for an investigation to “identify all related software applications that could pose an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States and the American people.” But for an official at the FCC, the US telecoms regulator, TikTok’s deportation seems inevitable.

Overwhelming flow

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

The issue of personal data is thus TikTok’s Achilles heel. The European Data Protection Board is also investigating. In France, seized over a video deletion complaint, the CNIL is investigating compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Despite its struggles, TikTok, which has opened offices around the world, is trying to prove its bona fides by setting up a moderation center here in Los Angeles or rejecting paid political ads. ByteDance even promises to provide access to the app’s source code.

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

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