The Chinese-owned social media app TikTok is wildly popular in the US, especially among teenagers who spend hours posting videos about the latest dance trends, their love-life complaints and personal unique talents.
As it grows into one of the world's most used social media platforms, TikTok has found itself under increased scrutiny in the US, its third-largest market.
In an attempt to assuage concerns over censorship and user privacy, the head of the short video platform, Alex Zhu, is embarking on a goodwill tour to Capitol Hill.
The meetings with American lawmakers, scheduled for this week, come as the video app's Beijing-based owner ByteDance is under increasing scrutiny to address censorship and data privacy fears.
The app accumulates users at a faster rate than Facebook or Instagram, according to industry estimates.
Among the senators, Republican Marsha Blackburn is among the first to confirm a meeting with Zhu.
Last month, she wrote an open letter to the TikTok chief expressing concerns over how the app could help the Chinese government "gain unfettered and unsupervised access" to the lives of American children.
"Because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the app is subject to foreign laws that allow China's government to seize its information and technology," she said in the letter, adding that more information is required to ensure the protection of children's privacy.
TikTok did not immediately respond to inquiries sent via email about Zhu's US trip.
Senator Blackburn did not immediately respond to an inquiry sent via her website.
The US is TikTok's third-largest market after India and China, accounting for about 123.8 million downloads or 8.2% of the total, according to Sensor Tower, a market intelligence firm.
The company says its user data is stored in Virginia, with a backup server in Singapore, and that it would never share user data with the Chinese government, or even with ByteDance, its parent company.
Still, the US army banned soldiers from using TikTok due to potential national security risks, according to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, speaking to CNBC last week.
The move came after the top Democrat in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, expressed concern about the US military's use of TikTok for recruiting American teenagers.
In an interview with The New York Times last month, Zhu said the app would never censor videos that displeased the ruling Communist Party.
When asked what he would do if Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally asked the company to take down a video or hand over user data, Zhu replied: "I would turn him down."
However, doubts resurfaced less than two weeks later, after a US teenager complained about losing access to her account after posting a video critical of the Chinese government's treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The company first attributed the penalty to a previous video she had posted, but later acknowledged it was due to a "human moderation error."
The US is uncharted territory for most Chinese tech giants, especially in social media. TikTok has been the first Chinese-developed app to take the world by storm, reinforcing its global position after its merger with Musical.ly and a rebranding in August 2018.
"The regulation of content is always the first thing for content products, whether it's in the domestic market or overseas. (Companies) have to follow the local market rules to regulate their data," said Xue Yu, research manager at IDC China's Industry and New Technology Research Department.
He compared TikTok's scrutiny to that given to Huawei after it became successful in selling telecoms equipment to US carriers and began promoting its leadership in 5G networks.
"I don't think there is anything special (about TikTok's situation in the US). It is easy to link it with what happened with Huawei and ZTE previously. TikTok had a very enthusiastic response in the market, so it will lead to (negative attention from the US)," he said.
TikTok has reached 1.5 billion total downloads on the App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower. It is the third most downloaded non-gaming app of the year after WhatsApp and Messenger.
The app uses an AI model to track user behavior and tailor content on their personalized page. Gaming addicts will receive more gaming-related videos, while music lovers will see more music-related videos.
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