Wow, TikTok must have offered Kevin Mayer a lot of money to take on this role.
Today, The New York Times has reported that Disney executive Kevin Mayer, who recently helped oversee the successful, global launch of the company’s new Disney+ platform, has taken on the role of TikTok CEO, while he’ll also serve as the COO of parent company Bytedance, which is based in China.
Well, technically – according to NYT:
“A TikTok spokesman on Monday stressed that TikTok was not owned by a Beijing-based company. Instead, its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, though he could not say how many people are based there. That entity owns TikTok and all of the businesses in China, he said.”
So ByteDance is actually now based in the tax haven that is the Cayman Islands, which will maybe serve as another tool for TikTok to distance itself from its Chinese Government associations. But that probably won’t work.
But either way, Mayer, who was on a base salary of more than 1.25m at Disney, will now move to TikTok. No financial details of the appointment were provided, but given the challenges Mayer will now face, it’s pretty safe to assume it was a substantial package.
Those challenges have started pretty much immediately, with US senator Josh Hawley noting that TikTok now has a local, US-based executive to front up to a Congressional hearing over if and how TikTok gathers and shares data with the Chinese Government.
[email protected]_us previously told me they couldn’t attend hearings and testify because executives were located in #China. But this new executive lives in the USA. I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath. t.co/XPfiVpo9Ta
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) May 18, 2020
TikTok has repeatedly noted that it doesn’t store any US user data in China, though many security officials remain unconvinced. The UK Ministry of Defence issued an internal directive last month that TikTok is not to be used by staff, citing the app’s likely exposure to the Chinese regime, while both the US and Australian military have initiated similar bans on the app.
Late last year, the Australian Strategic Policy institute published a report in which it suggested that TikTok is “using its global scale to advance Beijing’s political agenda”, among other security-based criticisms of the app.
Those concerns look set to hamper TikTok’s expansion moving forward, which is why it’s so keen to shake them off – but the existing regulations still suggest that TikTok, under Chinese-owned Bytedance, is required to provide user data to the Chinese Government on request.
The regulation is part of China’s cybersecurity laws, which state that all Chinese-owned companies must furnish Chinese government requests for user data on demand, without question. Again, TikTok will say that it doesn’t store US user data in China – but that may not matter. If TikTok owns the data, and Bytedance is asked to provide it, it seems likely that it would need to do so, regardless of where such data might, technically, be kept.
TikTok’s incoming Chief Information Security Officer Roland Cloutier was actually very careful in how he worded this element in his introductory post, in which he outlined his immediate priorities.
“Although we already have controls in place to protect user data, we will continue to focus on adding new technologies and programs focused on global data residency, data movement, and data storage access protections worldwide. Our goal is to minimize data access across regions so that, for example, employees in the APAC region, including China, would have very minimal access to user data from the EU and US.”
“Very minimal” is a relative term. How much access does someone, or something, need for it to be a concern?
But then again, as noted, maybe TikTok’s working to get off on a technicality – maybe Mayer will be coming into a situation where TikTok is actually based in the Caymans, which will mean that there’s no case to answer. It’s not a Chinese company, see? It’s a Cayman Islands business.
Maybe. Either way, it’s going to be a tough sell, and Mayer will be walking into a role that has both business and political implications, especially given the tenuous US-China trade situation, and accusations over the origin of the current COVID-19 outbreak.
It could end up being a particularly hot seat to be in.
Will it help improve TikTok’s position in western markets? Possibly. It certainly needs someone like Mayer to help bolster its approach.