Microsoft is in advanced talks to buy the US operations of TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video app that has been a source of national security and censorship concerns, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity to the negotiations.
The potential deal would be a victory for both companies, making Microsoft Corp. a major player in the social media arena and providing relief to TikTok and its parent company, Bytedance Ltd, a target of President Donald Trump's.
Trump said yesterday that he would take action as soon as today to ban TikTok in the United States. Trump's comments aboard Air Force One came after published reports that the administration is planning to order China's ByteDance to sell TikTok.
"As far as TikTok is concerned, we're banning them from the United States," Trump told reporters yesterday on Air Force One as he returned from Florida.
Trump said he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order to enforce the action, insisting, "I have that authority." He added, "It's going to be signed tomorrow."
Microsoft declined to comment.
Reports by Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal citing anonymous sources said the administration could soon announce a decision ordering ByteDance to divest its ownership in TikTok.
There have been reports of US tech giants and financial firms being interested in buying or investing in TikTok as the Trump administration sets its sights on the app. The New York Times and Fox Business, citing an unidentified source, first reported yesterday that Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok.
TikTok issued a statement yesterday saying that, "While we do not comment on rumors or speculation, we are confident in the long-term success of TikTok."
Today it posted a short video from its US General Manager Vanessa Pappas saying that "We're not planning on going anywhere."
ByteDance launched TikTok in 2017, then bought Musical.ly, a video service popular with teens in the US and Europe, and combined the two. A twin service, Douyin, is available for Chinese users.
TikTok's fun, goofy videos and ease of use has made it immensely popular, and US tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat see it as a competitive threat. It has said it has tens of millions of US users and hundreds of millions globally.
But its Chinese ownership has raised concerns about the censorship of videos, including those critical of the Chinese government, and the potential for sharing user data with Chinese officials.
TikTok maintains it doesn't censor videos based on topics sensitive to China and it would not give the Chinese government access to US user data even if asked. The company has hired a US CEO, a former top Disney executive, in an attempt to distance itself from its Chinese ownership.
US national-security officials have been reviewing the Musical.ly acquisition in recent months, while US armed forces have banned their employees from installing TikTok on government-issued phones. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that the US was considering banning TikTok.
Microsoft, which owns LinkedIn, is the No. 4 digital ad company in the US, after Google, Facebook and Amazon. Still, buying TikTok would be a significant change of direction from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's focus on workplace software that makes people more productive, said technology industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.
Unlike Google or Facebook, which dominate the digital advertising industry, Microsoft hasn't been under the intense scrutiny of US politicians and antitrust regulators lately over its market power.
Moorhead said that might make it easier to swoop in and acquire TikTok, which poses a competitive threat to social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Google's YouTube and Snapchat. It's an interesting irony that it was Microsoft at the centre of the landmark antitrust case 20 years ago.
If the deal goes through, "it would definitely make Microsoft a much more competitive advertising system in years to come," said eMarketer analyst Ross Benes.