Who owns TikTok? What to know about parent company ByteDance amid sell-or-ban bill for app

More than 170 million Americans use TikTok. For some, it’s a light-hearted social media app. For others, it’s a business. Since use exploded during the pandemic, TikTok has had a sweeping impact on American culture – as a search engine, a community hub and career-launcher.

But after Biden signed a sell-or-ban bill into law in late April, the popular app’s future is unclear. Critics are calling the measure a threat to free speech while supporters say it’s in the interest of national security.

Who owns TikTok?

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a private global company founded by Chinese entrepreneurs. According to TikTok, about 60% of the parent company is owned by global institutional investors, 20% by the company’s founders and 20% by employees.

The app’s CEO is Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean businessman.

When was TikTok made?

Before it was TikTok, the app was Musical.ly, a similar app popular among teenagers for lip-synching. Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang launched Musical.ly in 2014, according to Vox. It was later acquired by ByteDance, which already owned Douyin, TikTok's Chinese counterpart. Douyin debuted in China in 2016.

TikTok absorbed Musical.ly in August 2018 to become the app we know today.

Is TikTok owned by China?

TikTok is not based in China – it's not even available for use in the country. Douyin is TikTok's Chinese mainland counterpart. TikTok has global headquarters in Los Angeles and Singapore.

ByteDance, however, was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs Zhang Yiming and Liango Rubo. It was registered in the Cayman Islands but is based in Beijing, the Associated Press reports.

As required by Chinese law, ByteDance has a media license that involves “an entity affiliated with the Chinese government” owning 1% of Douyin Information Service Co., Ltd.

Per China’s 2017 National Intelligence law, organizations must assist or cooperate with state intelligence work, according to AP. Another 2014 Counter-Espionage Law says “relevant organizations … may not refuse” evidence collection. Many U.S. lawmakers say the potential for Beijing to collect intelligence on U.S. users is too great a risk.

Testifying before Congress last year, Chew told Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. that the company does not sell data to “any data broker.”

Is TikTok getting banned?

Not yet. The Senate passed a sell-or-ban TikTok bill with overwhelming support in April, which Biden quickly signed into law. The bill gives ByteDance nine months – with a possible three-month extension – to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations or face a ban.

If the ban takes effect, the app will disappear from Apple and Google stores. It would still be available on previously downloaded phones, but because TikTok would not be able to update the app, it would eventually become unusable.

Even still, this might not stop TikTok users from accessing it. When India banned TikTok in 2020, users found workarounds like VPNs (virtual private networks) and changing their phone’s location.

TikTok and ByteDance filed a lawsuit in federal court in response, arguing that divestment from the parent company would not be possible and that an impending shutdown in January 2025 would silence 170 million American users. According to the petition, the Chinese government "has made clear that it would not permit a divestment of the recommendation engine that is a key to the success of TikTok in the United States."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who owns TikTok? Why ByteDance has lawmakers citing security threats.