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The TikTok deal solves quite literally nothing

Well… that was pointless.

After debasing the idea of free commerce in the U.S in the name of a misplaced security concern, stringing along several multi-billion dollar companies that embarrassed themselves in the interest of naked greed, and demanding that the U.S. government get a cut of the profits, the TikTok saga we’ve been watching the past few weeks finally appears to be over.

A flurry of announcement late Saturday night indicate that the TikTok deal was actually a politically-oriented shakedown to boost the cloud infrastructure business of key supporters of the President of the United States.

Oracle, whose cloud infrastructure services run a laughable fourth to AWS, Alphabet*, and Microsoft, will be taking a 20 percent stake in TikTok alongside partner Walmart in what will be an investment round before TikTok Global (as the new entity will be called) goes public on an American stock exchange.

According to a statement from TikTok, Oracle will become TikTok’s “trusted technology partner” and will be responsible for hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied. “We are currently working with Walmart on a commercial partnership as well,” according to the statement from TikTok.

pic.twitter.com/jWxjnAIwZQ

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) September 19, 2020

Meanwhile, Oracle indicated that all the concerns from the White House, U.S. Treasury, and Congress over TikTok had nothing to do with the service’s selection of Oracle as its cloud provider. In its statement, Oracle said that “This technical decision by TikTok was heavily influenced by Zoom’s recent success in moving a large portion of its video conferencing capacity to the Oracle Public Cloud.”

Here’s how CNBC reporter Alex Sherman has the ownership structure breaking down, per “a person familiar with the matter. Oracle gets 12.5%, Walmart gets 7.5% and ByteDance gets the remaining 80%. The Trump administration is claiming that US investors will own 53% of TikTok because ByteDance (TikTok’s parent) is backed by venture capital investors that hold a 40% stake in the parent company.

So the ownership of TikTok Global will be, according to a person familiar with the matter:
Oracle – 12.5%
Walmart – 7.5%
ByteDance – 80% …

But 40% of ByteDance’s ownership is US venture capital funding. That’s how the Trump admin is calculating this deal as “majority US $”

— Alex Sherman (@sherman4949) September 20, 2020

 

The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance gets to maintain ownership of the U.S. entity, Oracle gets a huge new cloud customer to boost its ailing business, Walmart gets access to teens to sell stuff, and U.S. customer data is no safer (it’s just now in the hands of U.S. predators instead of foreign ones).

To be clear, data privacy and security is a major concern, but it’s not one that’s a concern when it comes to TikTok necessarily (and besides, the Chinese government has likely already acquired whatever data they want to on U.S. customers).

For many observers, the real concern with TikTok was that the company’s Chinese owners may be pressured by Beijing to manipulate its algorithm to promote or suppress content. Companies in China — including its internet giants — are required to follow the country’s intelligence and cloud security law mandating complete adherence with all government orders for data.

The Commerce Department in its statement said that “In light of recent positive developments, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, at the direction of President Trump, will delay the prohibition of identified transactions pursuant to Executive Order 13942, related to the TikTok mobile application that would have been effective on Sunday, September 20, 2020, until September 27, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.” So that’s a week reprieve.

So all this sound and fury … for what? The best investment return in all of these shenanigans is almost certainly Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz’ investment into Trump, who in addition to being a heavy donor to the Trump administration, also joined the presidential transition committee back in 2016. Thank god the U.S. saved TikTok from the crony capitalism of China. Let’s just hope they enjoy the crony capitalism of Washington DC.

*An earlier version of this article referred to AWS, Amazon and Microsoft. AWS and Amazon are the same company. I was typing fast. I’ve corrected the error.

TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days

Kevin Mayer, the chief executive of TikTok, announced on Wednesday that he is resigning, just over 100 days after the former Disney executive joined the world’s largest short video app in mid-May.

The news came just days came on the heel of TikTok’s move to sue the U.S. government over its forthcoming ban. The app, owned by Chinese internet upstart ByteDance, is caught in tensions between Beijing and Washington, which accuses the app of posing a national security threat to the U.S.

On August 6, President Donal Trump signed an executive order to shut down TikTok if ByteDance doesn’t sell the app’s U.S. operations. The app has until mid-November to divest itself.

“We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin’s role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision. We thank him for his time at the company and wish him well,” said a TikTok spokesperson in a statement to TechCrunch.

The New York Times reported earlier that Mayer announced his decision in a note to employees as TikTok came under pressure from the Trump administration over its links to China. Mayer “did not anticipate the extent to which TikTok would become involved in tensions between China and the U.S.,” sources told the Financial Times, and the executive “didn’t sign up for this.”

Vanessa Pappas, currently general manager of TikTok, will reportedly become the interim head.

The looming TikTok sale has attracted investor interest across the board, from Microsoft which publicly announced its intention through to the less expected bidder Oracle.

This is an updating story…

Daily Crunch: Trump bans transactions with ByteDance and Tencent

Trump escalates his campaign against Chinese tech companies, Facebook extends work from home until the middle of 2021 and Netflix adds support for Hindi. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 7, 2020.

The big story: Trump signs orders banning US business with TikTok owner ByteDance and Tencent’s WeChat

Both orders will take effect in 45 days, but its specific impact is unclear since Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will apparently not identify what transactions are covered until then.

This comes after Trump had already said that he was banning TikTok unless the app is sold to an American owner. (Specifically Microsoft, which has acknowledged that it’s in acquisition talks.)

TikTok hit back against the order by saying that it was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.”

The tech giants

Facebook extends coronavirus work from home policy until July 2021 — Facebook has joined Google in saying it will allow employees to work from home until the middle of next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Netflix’s latest effort to make inroads in India: Support for Hindi — Netflix has rolled out support for Hindi, a language spoken by nearly half a billion people in India.

Judge says Uber, Lyft preliminary injunction ruling to come in ‘a matter of days’ — Lyft argued that reclassifying drivers as employees would cause irreparable harm.

Startups, funding and venture capital

The rules of VC are being broken — The latest episode of Equity discusses “rolling funds” and how they could change the VC landscape.

Mashroom raises £4M for its ‘end-to-end’ lettings and property management service — The startup pitches itself as going “beyond the tenant-finding service” to include the entire rental journey.

Wendell Brooks has resigned as president of Intel Capital — Anthony Lin, who has been leading mergers and acquisitions and international investing, will take over on an interim basis.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How to pick the right Series A investors — It’s important for founders to get to know the people coming onto their board, and Jake Saper of Emergence Capital has some thoughts on how to do that.

IoT and data science will boost foodtech in the post-pandemic era — Three “must-dos” for post-pandemic retail grocers: rely on the data, rely on the biology and rely on the hardware.

Survey: Tell us what you think of Extra Crunch — Like Extra Crunch? Don’t like Extra Crunch? Tell us why!

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Civic tech platform Mobilize launches a census hub for the 2020 count’s critical final stretch —The new site, GetOutTheCount.com, will amplify nonprofits’ census efforts and collect them in one place.

Federal judge approves ending consent decrees that prevented movie studios from owning theaters — U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres cited the rise of streaming services like Netflix as one of the reasons for her decision.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

ByteDance to shut down Vigo apps in India

Chinese internet giant ByteDance has announced plans to discontinue two of its apps in India, its biggest overseas market, and urged users to move to TikTok.

Vigo Video and Vigo Lite, two apps that allow users to create and share short-form sketches and lip-syncing to Bollywood songs, posted a message early Monday (local time) to announce that they would be discontinued at the end of October this year.

In its post, titled “a farewell letter,” ByteDance said it was saddened to shut down the apps but did not offer an explanation for the decision. Indian news outlet Entrackr first spotted the letter.

Unlike TikTok, ByteDance’s most popular app, Vigo Video and Vigo Lite have struggled to make inroads in the world’s second largest internet market. While TikTok has more than 200 million users in India, Vigo Video had about 4 million monthly active users last month and Vigo Lite could only amass 1.5 million users, according to one of the top mobile insight firms — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

While Vigo Video gained fewer than 1 million users in a year, Vigo Lite shredded just as many in the same period, the data showed.

Both the apps counted India as their biggest market but have been available in several other markets, including neighboring nation Bangladesh, for instance. It’s unclear whether ByteDance is discontinuing the apps in every market. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move, despite the apps’ poor reception in India, comes as a surprise. Recruitment posts submitted by ByteDance as late as last month described Vigo as one of the company’s biggest businesses in India.

ByteDance also operates Helo app, which enables users to share their thoughts with friends, and Lark, a productivity suite similar to Google Drive. The company recently stopped charging Lark customers in India for the foreseeable future in response to the coronavirus crises.

Other recent job recruitment posts reveal that the company is looking to hire executives to aggressively explore ways to monetize its services in the country.

ByteDance’s TikTok app has been scrutinized in India in recent weeks for failing to actively remove videos that promoted violence, animal cruelty, racism, child abuse, and objectification of women.

In its message to users on Vigo apps today, ByteDance said it will help them migrate their videos to TikTok. On TikTok, “you will be able to show your talent to a larger group of friends. We are eager to see you [there]!” the message reads.

TikTok donates $3 million to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charity feeding kids affected by school closures

The social media giant TikTok said that it would donate $3 million to AfterSchool All-Stars, a charity founded by actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to feed families whose food security was affected by the close of public schools in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

TikTok said in a statement Thursday that families in 60 cities with After-School All-Stars chapters would receive food vouchers and gift cards that can be spent on food and other essentials through local grocery stores.

“We are all operating in uncertain times, and it’s more important now than ever before for both our local and global communities to come together to help those in need,” said Vanessa Pappas, General Manager of TikTok U.S., in a statement. “This pledge to ASAS will help more students get access to meals, safely provided to them, during this crisis. While this alone won’t mitigate the impact of the current situation, we hope it can relieve one worry for parents who are balancing social distancing mandates, work and caring for children who can no longer go to school each day.”

Chapters in cities that have been hardest hit by the epidemic will receive the aid, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Corporate partners in the initiative include Food Land, Giant, Kroger, Publix, Ralphs, Safeway, Target and Walmart .

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese media company Bytedance, also said it would match up to $1 million in employee donations to the ASAS to boost the organization’s ability to provide food.

“During a crisis, improvisation is critical and everyone has to look at new ways to help the most vulnerable,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California Governor and Founder of After-School All-Stars, in a statement. “The After-School All-Stars programs are paused with schools closed, but we remain committed to supporting the 100,000 families we work with year-round. When I founded After-School All-Stars in 1992, the goal was always to support the families who need it the most. I’m grateful to TikTok for their donation which allows us to shift our priorities so our team can safely deliver groceries and gift cards for groceries to the families we help.”

 

TikTok apologizes for removing viral video about abuses against Uighurs, blames a “human moderation error”

TikTok has issued a public apology to a teenager who had her account suspended shortly after posting a video that asked viewers to research the persecution of Uighur people and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang. TikTok included a “clarification on the timeline of events,” and said that the viral video was removed four days after it was posted on November 23 “due to a human moderation error” and did not violate the platform’s community guidelines (the account @getmefamouspartthree and video have since been reinstated).

But the user, Feroza Aziz, who describes herself in her Twitter profile as “just a Muslim trying to spread awareness,” rejected TikTok’s claims, tweeting “Do I believe they took it away because of an unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No.”

In the video removed by TikTok, Aziz begins by telling viewers to use an eyelash curler, before telling them to put it down and “use your phone, that you’re using right now, to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating families from each other, kidnapping them, murdering them, raping them, forcing them to eat pork, forcing them to drink, forcing them to convert. This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it. Please be aware, please spread awareness in Xinjiang right now.”

TikTok is owned by ByteDance and the video’s removal led to claims that the Beijing-based company capitulated to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok for China, is subject to the same censorship laws as other online platforms in China).

Though the government-directed persecution of Muslim minority groups in China began several years ago and about a million people are believed to be detained in internment camps, awareness of the crisis was heightened this month after two significant leaks of classified Chinese government documents were published by the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, confirming reports by former inmates, eyewitnesses and researchers.

Aziz told BuzzFeed News she has been talking about the persecution of minority groups in China since 2018 because “as a Muslim girl, I’ve always been oppressed and seen my people be oppressed, and I’ve always been into human rights.”

In the BuzzFeed News article, published before TikTok’s apology post, the company claimed Aziz’s account suspension was related to another video she made that contained an image of Osama Bin Laden. The video was created as a satirical response to a meme about celebrity crushes and Aziz told BuzzFeed News that “it was a dark humor joke that he was at the end, because obviously no one in their right mind would think or say that.” A TikTok spokesperson said it nonetheless “violated its policies on terrorism-related content.”

“While we recognize that this video may have been intended as satire, our policies on this front are currently strict. Any such content, when identified, is deemed a violation of our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service, resulting in a permanent ban of the account and associated devices,” a TikTok spokesperson told BuzzFeed, adding that the suspension of Aziz’s second account, which the makeup tutorial video was posted on, was part of the platform’s blocking of 2,406 devices linked to previously suspended accounts.

In TikTok’s apology post today, TikTok US head of safety Eric Tan wrote that the platform relies on technology to uphold community guidelines and human moderators as a “second line of defense.”

“We acknowledge that at times, this process will not be perfect. Humans will sometimes make mistakes, such as the one made today in the case of @getmefamouspartthree’s video,” he added. “When those mistakes happen, however, our commitment is to quickly address and fix them, undertake trainings or make changes to reduce the risk of the same mistakes being repeated, and fully own the responsibility for our errors.”

Aziz told the Washington Post, however, that “TikTok is trying to cover up this whole mess. I won’t let them get away with this.”

The controversy comes as TikTok faces an inquiry by the U.S. government into how it secures the personal data of users. Reuters reported yesterday that TikTok plans to separate its product and business development, and marketing and legal teams from Douyin in the third quarter of this year.

 

TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.