- Washington fears alleged links to Chinese government
- TikTok is major partner for Six Nations, MLS and others
The US government is pressing ahead with plans to ban TikTok over national security concerns, potentially jeopardising several partnerships between the Chinese-owned social network and major sports properties.
TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew faced questions about the company’s privacy practices and alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party during a US congressional hearing lasting four and a half hours last week.
Of particular concern was the allegation that Chinese engineers at parent company ByteDance could access private user information and US data – something Chew appeared to confirm as he gave evidence.
His attempts to distance TikTok from ByteDance and downplay its connections with China failed to dissuade Republican and Democrat politicians united in their hostility.
TikTok is already prohibited on government-owned or managed devices but could now also be subject to a wider ban that would see it lose more than 150 million active users in the US.
“It’s very concerning that the CEO of TikTok can’t be honest and admit what we already know to be true—China has access to TikTok user data,” Kevin McCarthy, speaker of the House of Representatives, said on Twitter.
“The House will be moving forward with legislation to protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party.”
TikTok is an increasingly important tool for the sports industry as it seeks to engage Gen Z audiences. The company has recently agreed formal arrangements with the Women’s Six Nations, Major League Soccer (MLS), and the PGA Tour, while many other rights holders and broadcasters use the platform as part of their digital content strategy.
The US government’s suspicion of TikTok is nothing new. Former President Donald Trump attempted to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US-based company in 2020, a process which culminated with a deal that would see all US user data managed by enterprise IT giant Oracle. Chew, however, confirmed ‘Project Texas’ was not yet complete.
You’d be hard pressed to find a rights holder of any note without a presence on TikTok. Its ability to reach younger users who don’t engage with traditional television or other social media platforms is unmatched, while its algorithmic approach to content delivery helps find engaged audiences.
TikTok is used for everything from behind-the-scenes content to highlights and live streams, while athletes and influencers are also prominent users of the platform. The loss of such a valuable channel would be of huge concern to the industry already grappling with how it attracts new fans in an era in which there is so much competition for their attention.
Trump’s departure from the White House three years ago gave TikTok a stay of execution, but there is bipartisan support for new legislation.
What happens next is unclear but you only have to look at the fate of Huawei to see what happens when Washington decides to take action. The Chinese mobile and IT giant was blacklisted in 2019, a measure which effectively prevented it from accessing US-made technology and ended its ambitions of becoming the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer. Similarly, a US ban on the use of Huawei’s telecommunications equipment in 5G networks led to similar sanctions in Europe, greatly reducing its addressable market and forcing the company into crisis mode.
It may be in the interests of all parties to try and force a sale of TikTok once more – a measure which would see the sports industry breathe a sigh of relief.