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The U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future

The fate of TikTok in the United States got even more confusing this week. The U.S. Justice and Commerce Departments sent conflicting messages today about TikTok’s future, which is now up in the air with the upcoming administration transition.

The Department of Commerce said Thursday it would abide by an injunction issued October 30 by the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that would have blocked TikTok from operating in the U.S. starting from today. In a statement, the department said it is complying with the court’s order and its prohibition against TikTok “HAS BEEN ENJOINED, and WILL NOT GO INTO EFFECT, pending further legal developments.”

But on the same day, the Justice Department appealed the Pennsylvania court’s ruling just as it was set to go into effect.

But wait! It gets even more convoluted: another court–the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington–just set new deadlines in December for ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, and the Trump administration, to file documents in a case involving a divestment order that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok to continue operating in the U.S.

ByteDance reached an agreement with Oracle and Walmart in September, but the future of the deal is also uncertain.

The Justice Department’s appeal is part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government on September 18 by three TikTok creators, Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers. Each has more than a million followers on TikTok, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., and argues that a ban would impact their ability to earn a living from brand collaborations on the app.

On Oct. 30, Judge Wendy Beetlestone issued an injunction against the U.S. government’s restrictions. In her ruling, Beetlestone wrote that the “government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posted by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical.”

This case is separate from the one ByteDance filed against the U.S. government in a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. Earlier this week, ByteDance asked that court to vacate the U.S. order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations. ByteDance told TechCrunch in a statement that without an extension on the November 12 deadline, it “[had] no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the U.S.”

The Commerce Department’s statement today, along with the Justice Department’s appeal and the new deadlines in the divestment case, underscore the confusion about the future of the Trump administration’s actions against TikTok after President-Elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.

While some analysts believe the Biden administration may give Chinese tech companies that were targeted under the current administration, including Huawei and ByteDance, a chance to re-negotiate with the government, that may take second priority as Biden deals with domestic issues, including the resurgence of COVID-19 in the U.S.

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ByteDance asks federal appeals court to vacate U.S. order forcing it to sell TikTok

In a new filing, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance asked the federal appeals court to vacate the United States government order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations.

President Donald Trump issued an order in August requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. business by November 12, unless it was granted a 30-day extension by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). In today’s filing (embedded below) with the federal appeals court in Washington D.C., ByteDance said it asked the CFIUS for an extension on November 6, but the order hasn’t been granted yet.

It added it remains committed to “reaching a negotiated mitigation solution with CFIUS satisfying its national security concerns” and will only file a motion to stay enforcement of the divestment order “if discussions reach an impasse.”

Security concerns about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company were at the center of the executive order Trump signed in August, banning transactions with Beijing-headquartered ByteDance.

The executive order claimed that TikTok posed a threat to national security, though ByteDance maintains that it does not. But in order to prevent the app, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., from being banned, ByteDance reached a deal in September to sell 20% of its stake in TikTok to Oracle and Walmart. With the Biden administration set to take office in January and ByteDance’s ongoing legal challenge against the divestment order, however, the future of the deal is now uncertain.

The new filing is part of a lawsuit TikTok filed against the Trump administration on September 18. It won an early victory when the court stopped the U.S. government’s ban from going into effect on its original deadline that month.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said it has been working with the CFIUS for a year to address its national security concerns “even as we disagree with its assessment.”

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order,” the statement continued.

“Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US.” 

TikTok asks U.S. federal appeals court to vacate U.S. divestment order by TechCrunch on Scribd

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China’s cash-burning video sector: how Kuaishou lost $1B in 6 months

Rumors have been floating for months that ByteDance is going public with TikTok and Douyin separately. Just last night, Bloomberg reported that ByteDance is seeking a pre-IPO round of $2 billion at a staggering valuation of $180 billion.

Before any of that materializes, ByteDance Chinese rival Kuaishou has moved ahead to file for an initial public offering in Hong Kong Thursday night, and its prospectus is shedding light on a race where both growth and costs are astronomical.

Launched by a former Google engineer in 2011 to share GIFs, Kuaishou has evolved into a nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s sister in China. 21.5% owned by Tencent, the company reported a net loss of 6.8 billion yuan ($1 billion) in the first six months of 2020 while operating loss stood at 7.57 billion yuan. In contrast, it logged an operating profit of 1.1 billion yuan in the same period just last year.

The increase was in part a result of the company’s aggressive promotion of its lite version Kuaishou Express, which tailors to China’s less tech-savvy demographics. Unlike ByteDance, Kuaishou has had limited success overseas and relies on continuous domestic growth.

Its selling and marketing expenses skyrocketed 354.1% from 3 billion yuan in H1 2019 to 13.7 billion yuan in H1 this year. But the splurge seemed to have paid off: the lite app gained 100 million DAUs within a year. It’s a game of pay-to-play.

The main app Kuaishou itself, as of June, reached 302 million daily users, who spent over 85 minutes on the app per day engrossed in watching clips and live sessions. For comparison, Douyin crossed 400 million DAUs in January.

Though known as a “short-video app”, Kuaishou earns most of its revenue — 68.5% in H1 — from live streaming, during which audiences can send hosts virtual items priced anywhere between 1 and 2,000 yuan. Other monetization avenues include advertising, which accounted for 28% of its revenues, as well as less significant sources like e-commerce and games.

Douyin, on the other hand, pulled in about 67% of its revenues from advertising last year, a source told TechCrunch earlier, while live-streaming made up 17%.

The revenue makeup reflects the core use case of the apps. Kuaishou often prides itself on user engagement; indeed, over a quarter of its 776 million monthly users are creators themselves. That makes Kuaishou more of a social app where the viewers and creators interact frequently through means like live streaming and gifting.

Douyin, with algorithms that favor premium content, acts more like a form of media as some Chinese venture capitalists observed, making it a destination for showing ads.

In terms of revenue size, Kuaishou generated 39.1 billion yuan last year, about one-third of what ByteDance made last year. But one should keep in mind that ByteDance has another cash cow: its news and information aggregator, Jinri Toutiao.

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ByteDance to pump $170 million into e-book reader Zhangyue

While short videos are what drive ByteDance’s revenues and give the Chinese startup international recognition, the firm is expanding into numerous new areas like other tech giants to fuel growth. It’s dabbled in enterprise software and online learning, and the news came this week that ByteDance will invest in one of China’s largest e-book readers and publishers, Zhangyue.

Zhangyue announced Wednesday evening that a ByteDance wholly-owned subsidiary plan to acquire about 11% of its shares for 1.1 billion yuan or $170 million. The China-listed online literature company, with a current market cap of 12 billion yuan, operates an app where 170 million users read novels, magazines, anime and listen to audiobooks every month during H1.

For comparison, its immediate rival China Literature, a Tencent spinoff, claimed 217 million monthly users in the same duration.

The partners are targeting a booming online reading market driven by China’s smartphone penetration. In 2019, users spent nearly an hour a day on their e-reading apps, according to market insight provider iResearch. The sector is projected to generate 20.6 billion yuan in revenue, which includes subscription and licensing fees, by 2020; that’s up from 6.6 billion yuan in 2015. Meanwhile, e-book users in the country will reach 510 million this year, the researcher said.  

The deal will form a close alliance between Zhangyue and China’s leading digital entertainment titan. Under the agreement, ByteDance gets to assign one board member to Zhangyue and will be able to license the publisher’s intellectual property.

In return, Zhangyue will get ByteDance support in areas like ad buying, monetization, and other technologies. The success of Douyin, TikTok and newsreader Toutiao, which collectively claim users in the hundreds of millions, have turned ByteDance into a new darling for brands and advertisers.

In all, the collaboration will incur 470 million yuan worth of transactions between the partners in the following year, up from 270 million yuan a year before the equity acquisition.

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TikTok stars got a judge to block Trump’s TikTok ban

TikTok has won another battle in its fight against the Trump administration’s ban of its video-sharing app in the U.S. — or, more accurately in this case, the TikTok community won a battle. On Friday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania issued an injunction that blocked the restrictions that would have otherwise blocked TikTok from operating in the U.S. on November 12.

This particular lawsuit was not led by TikTok itself, but rather a group of TikTok creators who use the app to engage with their million-plus followers.

According to the court documents, plaintiff Douglas Marland has 2.7 million followers on the app; Alec Chambers has 1.8 million followers; and Cosette Rinab has 2.3 million followers. The creators argued — successfully as it turns out — that they would lose access to their followers in the event of a ban, as well as the “professional opportunities afforded by TikTok.” In other words, they’d lose their brand sponsorships — meaning, their income.

This is not the first time that the U.S. courts have sided with TikTok to block the Trump administration’s proposed ban over the Chinese-owned video sharing app. Last month, a D.C. judge blocked the ban that would have removed the app from being listed in U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google.

That ruling had not, however, stopped the November 12 ban that would have blocked companies from providing internet hosting services that would have allowed TikTok to continue to operate in the U.S.

The Trump administration had moved to block the TikTok app from operating in the U.S. due to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, claiming it was a national security threat. The core argument from the judge in this ruling was the “Government’s own descriptions of the national security threat posed by the TikTok app are phrased in the hypothetical.”

That hypothetical risk was unable to be stated by the government, the judge argued, to be such a risk that it outweighed the public interest. The interest, in this case, was the more than 100 million users of TikTok and the creators like Marland, Chambers and Rinab that utilized it to spread “informational materials,” which allowed the judge to rule that the ban would shut down a platform for expressive activity.

“We are deeply moved by the outpouring of support from our creators, who have worked to protect their rights to expression, their careers, and to help small businesses, particularly during the pandemic,” said Vanessa Pappas, Interim Global Head of TikTok, in a statement. “We stand behind our community as they share their voices, and we are committed to continuing to provide a home for them to do so,” she added.

The TikTok community coming to the rescue on this one aspect of the overall TikTok picture just elevates this whole story. Though the company has been relatively quiet through this whole process, Pappas has thanked the community several times for its outpouring of support. Though there were some initial waves of “grief” on the app with creators frantically recommending people follow them on other platforms, that has morphed over time into more of a “let’s band together” vibe. This activity coalesced around a big swell in voting advocacy on the platform, where many creators are too young to actually participate but view voting messaging as their way to participate.

TikTok has remained active in the product department through the whole mess, shipping elections guides and trying to ban QAnon conspiracy spread, even as Pakistan banned and then un-banned the app.

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