TikTok went on the offensive on Wednesday, publishing an open letter that called out rival Facebook for producing “copycat products” and proclaiming that despite the app’s Chinese ownership, “we are not the enemy.”
In the letter, titled “Fair competition and transparency benefits us all,” TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, who joined the company in May after a lengthy career at Disney, argued that Facebook was attempting to impede TikTok’s growth in the United States under the guise of patriotism.
“At TikTok we welcome competition,” Mayer wrote. “We think fair competition makes all of us better. To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on. Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly. But let’s focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor – namely Facebook – disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the US.”
Instagram Reels is a short-form video service similar to TikTok that is expected to roll out in the U.S. in August. The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook has been courting key TikTok creators with financial incentives to migrate to Reels. Lasso, Facebook’s previous attempt at a short video feature, was unveiled in 2018 and shut down on July 10.
Mayer went on to argue in the open letter that “without TikTok, American advertisers would again be left with few choices.
“We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda – our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy,” Mayer wrote. “Consumers can only benefit from the growth of healthy, successful platforms like TikTok and we will fight to continue to give American creators, users and brands an entertaining outlet for many years to come.”
In other sections of the statement, Mayer pointed out that TikTok had launched a Transparency and Accountability Center to share details about the company’s data practices, and addressed the fact that TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.
“The entire [social media] industry has received scrutiny, and rightly so,” Mayer said. “Yet, we have received even more scrutiny due to the company’s Chinese origins. We accept this and embrace the challenge of giving peace of mind through greater transparency and accountability. We believe it is essential to show users, advertisers, creators, and regulators that we are responsible and committed members of the American community that follows US laws.”
On Friday, a Bloomberg report revealed that President Donald Trump is planning to sign an order compelling ByteDance to sell off Tiktok in order to quell data concerns, with Microsoft reportedly in acquisition talks.
Alex Zhu, Mayer’s predecessor who now focuses on investments at ByteDance, previously told The New York Times that the company’s data is stored on servers in Virginia and Singapore and would not be shared with China. Zhu said he would personally deny a hypothetical request from Chinese President Xi Jinping if ever asked to hand over such data.
A similar statement was published on TikTok’s blog, stressing that the company employs a U.S. moderation team in California and is “not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.” The statement also said that TikTok “does not operate in China” and does not “have any intention of doing so in the future.”
ByteDance does operate a Chinese equivalent of TikTok with identical branding called Douyin, but it uses separate servers and is considered a different app.
TikTok and its parent company have come under scrutiny from American politicians, particularly after a 2019 report from The Guardian revealed internal documents instructing TikTok moderators to censor political content, including topics sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. At the time, TikTok responded to the leaks by calling the documents outdated.
By David Aaron
October 8, 2020