After coming into the role back in May, new, US-based TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer has today issued his first public statement, in which he takes an aggressive stance in facing up to the challenges posed by regulators and competitors, whom, he says, are seeking to shut the app down.
TikTok is currently under investigation in the US and other regions over its links to the Chinese Government, which has already resulted in the platform being banned in India. Amid the speculation, Facebook has also taken the opportunity to further squeeze the app, by releasing its similar 'Reels' functionality on Instagram into more markets. Facebook has even offered deals to prominent TikTok creators to get them to share their content on Reels instead.
And Mayer apparently has had enough of Facebook's efforts in this respect.
"Innovation is one of the defining characteristics of a competitive market. The introduction of a successful new product fuels growth and dynamism in any industry. It is unfortunate for creators, brands, and the broader community that it has been years since a company came along and reimagined what a social entertainment platform could be. But TikTok did just that."
This is the angle Mayer takes in his statement, that TikTok is good for competition, which is good for the market more broadly. Therefore, any effort to limit, or even remove TikTok, will only work to benefit the larger players in the sector.
It's no coincidence that Mayer's statement comes as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple face a Senate anti-trust hearing, in which various politicians will present arguments that the tech giants have structured anti-competitive systems which now work to benefit them, while also seeking to crush competition via their market dominance.
Indeed, already, one statement of evidence presented in the hearing has been a discussion around Facebook purchasing Instagram to 'neutralize' a competitor.
NEW: Here are the documents the House obtained about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram — including Zuckerberg’s discussion about “neutralizing a competitor” https://t.co/NrXDkLzxcn pic.twitter.com/BopG0IrW9P— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) July 29, 2020
Mayer looks to hone in on this point, underlining the benefits of a more competitive market:
"Without TikTok, American advertisers would again be left with few choices. Competition would dry up and so too will an outlet for America's creative energy. We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda – our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy. Consumers can only benefit from the growth of healthy, successful platforms like TikTok and we will fight to continue to give American creators, users and brands an entertaining outlet for many years to come."
The wording here is important - Mayer's note that TikTok is willing to 'fight' is the basic undertone of his entire statement. Unlike most other tech CEOs, who generally don't make such brazen commentary, Mayer looks to establish that he will not be bullied by the bigger players - and in fact, he challenges them directly:
"To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on. Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly. But let's focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor – namely Facebook – disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the US."
That really gets to the key point - while Facebook is most definitely looking to halt the growth of TikTok, in order to protect its own market share, the broader discussion, which Mayer seemingly looks to minimize, is TikTok's potential ties to the Chinese Government, which has been the basis for all the major action against TikTok thus far.
"With our success comes responsibility and accountability. The entire industry has received scrutiny, and rightly so. Yet, we have received even more scrutiny due to the company's Chinese origins. We accept this and embrace the challenge of giving peace of mind through greater transparency and accountability. We believe it is essential to show users, advertisers, creators, and regulators that we are responsible and committed members of the American community that follows US laws."
This is the only mention of China in Mayer's 790-word statement, which is also intentional, seeking to shift the focus away from this aspect. But it's this linkage which has the most potential for restriction on TikTok's operations - and while Mayer looks to play down the importance of the company's Chinese ownership, the thing that he can't say is that TikTok will never share data with the Chinese regime. Because it will - any Chinese-owned company operates under Beijing's cybersecurity laws, which compel it to share data, on request.
TikTok is looking at its options in this respect, which Mayer seemingly alludes to:
"We are willing to take all necessary steps to ensure the long-term availability and success of TikTok."
Those steps could involve US investors taking over TikTok, separating it from parent company ByteDance. That'd be a big ask - the most recent valuation of TikTok puts it at around $50 billion - but maybe, this is what Mayer means when they will take "all necessary steps". It's hard to say, he's clearly looking to avoid the topic and shift the focus onto anti-competitive behavior - again, the theme of the day.
Mayer's approach here is interesting, not just in tone, but in content.
In terms of his approach - framing Facebook as a key combatant - that may not go well, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a history of taking such things to heart.
Back in 2012, after Facebook offered Snapchat a $3 billion takeover offer, which Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel refused, Spiegel then said that Zuckerberg's demeanor changed, and his approach to Snapchat since has been significantly different:
“It was basically like, ‘We’re going to crush you.’”
Zuckerberg then seemingly made it a personal mission to defeat Snapchat, and while Facebook failedin its initial efforts to quell the rising app, the introduction of Instagram Stories largely accomplished that goal, at least with respect to restricting Snapchat's expansion.
As such, poking Zuck, and challenging him head on, may not be the best line for Mayer to take.
But Mayer would see this as a perfect opportunity to win support - TikTok, it's also worth noting, has hired a small army of lobbyists in Washington to convince politicians that the platform is all good, that there's nothing to fear, and that TikTok should not be restricted. Mayer's messaging seems more aligned with this push, shifting the focus onto market expansion, which TikTok has also sought to emphasize with its recently announced Creator Fund to pay top contributors, and its plan to add 10k jobs in US, amid the COVID-19 downturn.
Essentially, it seems like Mayer can't do much about the China connection, so he's looking to shift the narrative entirely.
That could work, but while China remains at loggerheads with several nations, and continues to aggressively push its agenda in others, it'll be a hard tag for TikTok to shake.
And as noted, Zuckerberg might make it personal. Which could end badly for the rising app.