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TikTok owner picks Oracle over Microsoft as US tech partner

By MATT O'BRIEN and TALI ARBEL AP Technology Writers

Oracle said Monday that the Chinese owner of TikTok has picked the U.S. company to be its "trusted technology provider," beating out rival Microsoft in a deal that could help keep the popular video-sharing app running in the U.S.

Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger said she was confirming remarks made by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who told CNBC on Monday that TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, submitted its proposal to the U.S. government for approval.

"We did get a proposal over the weekend that includes Oracle as the trusted technology partner with Oracle making many representations for national security issues," Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin said there's also a commitment to make TikTok's global operations a U.S.-headquartered company with 20,000 new jobs.

TikTok said in a statement Monday that its proposal to the Treasury Department should "resolve the Administration's security concerns" and emphasized the importance of its app to the 100 million users it claims in the U.S.

President Donald Trump's administration has threatened to ban TikTok by Sept. 20 and ordered owner ByteDance to sell its U.S. business, claiming national security risks due to its Chinese ownership. The government worries about user data being funneled to Chinese authorities. TikTok denies it is a national security risk and is suing to stop the administration from enacting the threatened ban.

Much remains unclear about the proposed deal with Oracle, which is pointedly not referring to it as a sale or acquisition.

Any deal must still be reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, known as CFIUS, a U.S. government group chaired by the Treasury Secretary that studies mergers for national security reasons. Mnuchin said he expects the group to review the proposal this week and later make a recommendation to the president.

The president can approve or deny a transaction recommended by the panel, though Trump has already voiced support for Oracle as a "great company" that could handle the acquisition.

If the arrangement is approved by the U.S. government, TikTok would be allowed to continue operating.

Microsoft said in a Sunday statement that ByteDance "let us know today they would not be selling TikTok's US operations to Microsoft."

Proposals to acquire TikTok's U.S. business raised questions among outside observers about how it would be split from the rest of TikTok's social media platform, which is popular worldwide. ByteDance also owns a similar video app, Douyin, for the Chinese market.

Microsoft added it was "confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok's users, while protecting national security interests." The company said it "would have made significant changes to ensure the service met the highest standards for security, privacy, online safety, and combating disinformation."

Walmart, which had planned to partner with Microsoft on the acquisition, said Sunday it "continues to have an interest in a TikTok investment" and is talking about it with ByteDance and other parties.

TikTok, which says it has 100 million U.S. users and about 700 million globally, is known for its fun, goofy videos of dancing, lip-syncing, pranks and jokes. It's recently become home to more political content such as the comedian Sarah Cooper, who drew a large audience by lip-syncing Trump's often-disjointed statements from public appearances.

But the app has also raised concerns because of its Chinese ownership. The White House has cracked down on a range of Chinese businesses, including telecom equipment makers Huawei and ZTE and messaging app WeChat, over worries that they would enable Chinese authorities to access U.S. user data. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns about censorship and children's privacy.

TikTok denies that it has shared user data with the Chinese government or that it would do so if asked. The company says it has not censored videos at the request of Chinese authorities and insists it is not a national-security threat.

TikTok has sued to stop the ban, but not the sale order. The negotiations have been complicated by several factors, including Trump's repeated demands that the U.S. government should get a "cut" of any deal, a stipulation and role for the president that experts say is unprecedented.

In addition, the Chinese government in late August unveiled new regulations that restrict exports of technology, likely including the artificial intelligence system TikTok uses to choose which videos to spool up to its users. That means ByteDance would have to obtain a license from China to export such technology to a foreign company.

"The Chinese government has implied it may block export of TikTok's AI systems, so that might complicate a direct sale," said Tiffany Li, a visiting professor at the Boston University School of Law.

She said that TikTok's AI-backed video recommendation system is one of the app's competitive advantages.

Whether the Oracle-TikTok deal will allow the sidestepping of Chinese export restrictions depends on which entity retains control of TikTok in the U.S., said Paul Haswell, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Pinsent Masons.

The deal had come together rapidly after the administration ramped up its threats against TikTok this summer, despite TikTok's efforts to put distance between its app and its Chinese ownership. It installed former Disney executive Kevin Mayer as its American CEO, but he resigned in August after just a few months on the job, saying the "political environment has sharply changed."

Both Microsoft and Oracle are known more for their business software offerings than for those intended for consumers.

Oracle primarily makes database software. It competes with tech giants such as Microsoft and Amazon that provide cloud services as well as business-software specialists like Salesforce.

Some analysts see Oracle's interest in a consumer business as misguided. Oracle should focus on enterprise-market acquisitions and not invest in a consumer app like TikTok that doesn't fit with the rest of its business, said Jefferies analyst Brent Thill, who compares the idea to Delta Airlines buying a motorcycle company. "It doesn't make any sense," he said.

Thill suggested that TikTok competitors like Facebook and Snapchat should be "cheering on Oracle" as a buyer, because Oracle wouldn't "add a lot of value to the app."

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is unusual among tech executives for his public support of Trump, hosting a fundraiser for him in February at his Rancho Mirage, California, estate. The company also hired a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence; its CEO, Safra Catz, also served on Trump's transition team.

The president said on Aug. 18 that Oracle was "a great company" that "could handle" buying TikTok. He declined to state his preference between Oracle and Microsoft as buyers.

"We have a lot of confidence in both Microsoft and Oracle," Mnuchin said Monday. "They've chosen Oracle.


BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?


By ZEN SOO AP Technology Writer

HONG KONG (AP) — ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the popular video-sharing app TikTok, has chosen Oracle over Microsoft as a new American technology partner to help keep the app operating in the U.S. TikTok confirmed the decision Monday, echoing earlier statements from Oracle and the U.S. treasury secretary.

ByteDance faces a Sept. 20 deadline to sell TikTok to an American company or risk being banned in the U.S. over national security concerns. But a lot remains unclear, including how the social media company would fit inside a business software company like Oracle and whether whatever arrangement the companies reach will be acceptable to the U.S. officials who will need to approve it.

Here are some questions and answers about the deal.

Q. WHAT IS TIKTOK?

A. The app is a home for fun, goofy videos that are easy to make and to watch. That's made it immensely popular, particularly with young people, and U.S. tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat see it as a competitive threat. TikTok says it has 100 million U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally. It has its own influencer culture, enabling people to make a living from posting videos on the service, and hosts ads from major U.S. companies.

ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese company, launched TikTok in 2017, then bought Musical.ly, a video service popular with teens in the U.S. and Europe, and combined the two. A twin service, Douyin, is available for Chinese users.

Q. WHAT CONCERNS U.S. OFFICIALS ABOUT THE APP?

A. TikTok, like most other social networks, collects user data and moderates what's posted. It grabs people's locations and messages they send one another, for example, and tracks what people watch to discern what kinds of videos they like and how best to target ads to them.

Similar concerns apply to American social networks, but Chinese ownership adds an extra wrinkle because the Chinese government could order companies to help it gather intelligence. In TikTok's case, that's a hypothetical threat, Samm Sacks, a researcher at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center has said.

TikTok says it does not store U.S. user data in China and that it would not give user data to the government. But experts say if the Chinese government wants information, it will get it.

There are also concerns about TikTok censoring videos critical of China, which TikTok denies, or pushing propaganda. Some critics say the company is violating children's privacy laws.

The U.S. has given parent company ByteDance a Sept. 20 deadline to complete a sale of TikTok's U.S. assets to an American company, or risk being banned in the country.

Q: IS ORACLE BUYING TIKTOK, AND WHAT ASSETS ARE INVOLVED?

Oracle was among the pool of bidders, including Microsoft and Walmart, to buy TikTok's American operations. Microsoft on Sunday said that ByteDance will not be selling TikTok's U.S. operations to the company. Oracle, in confirming it was the winning bidder Monday, didn't refer to the deal as a sale or acquisition, instead saying it was chosen as TikTok's "trusted technology provider."

It's unclear at this point what assets, if any, Oracle would actually acquire.

TikTok has found popularity around the world thanks in part to its content-recommendation algorithm, which suggests videos to users based on their viewing history. But the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reported Sunday, citing an unnamed person, that ByteDance will not sell the algorithm. China has tightened its controls and requires companies to get permission to export such technologies.

"The Chinese government has implied it may block export of TikTok's AI systems, so that might complicate a direct sale," said Tiffany Li, a visiting professor at the Boston University School of Law. "One of TikTok's competitive advantages is its AI-backed video recommendation system."

Q: WHAT IS ORACLE'S RELATIONSHIP TO TIKTOK LIKELY TO BE?

Oracle is known for providing enterprise software including cloud computing services. So it could provide cloud services such as storing TikTok's data in the U.S., or computing services for the app.

"Oracle could be a technology partner, but a sale or divestiture of the US operations for TikTok remains the focus," Wedbush Securities analysts said in an analyst note.

Q: WILL THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION GO FOR THE ARRANGEMENT?

A: A TikTok-Oracle deal must be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which vets deals that may have national security implications. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday that the group will review the proposal this week and later make a recommendation to President Donald Trump.

CFIUS earlier greenlighted Chinese PC maker Lenovo's purchase of IBM's computer server business in 2014, after concluding the deal did not pose significant security risks. It also cleared SoftBank's acquisition of Sprint in 2013, but only after SoftBank agreed not to use Huawei Technologies and ZTE equipment in the U.S.

If Oracle and TikTok can show they can safeguard user data in the U.S., CFIUS and the Trump administration might accept the arrangement.

TikTok said in a Monday statement that its proposal aims to "resolve the Administration's security concerns" and emphasized the importance of its app to the 100 million users it claims in the U.S.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said Monday that it had no comment on Oracle, but described the situation as a "typical government-coerced transaction."

Q: HOW MUCH DOES ORACLE'S CLOSENESS TO THE ADMINISTRATION MATTER?

A: Trump hasn't said if he preferred Oracle or Microsoft but in August described Oracle as "a great company" that could handle the sale.

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison is unusual among tech executives for his public support of President Donald Trump.

"Oracle's connections with the Trump administration are interesting. It's possible they may be able to negotiate an outcome that allows TikTok to continue operating in the U.S. without a full sale, with ByteDance still retaining something," said Boston University's Li.

Mnuchin said Monday that "we have a lot of confidence in both Microsoft and Oracle," but noted that ByteDance has chosen Oracle.

Q: WHAT MIGHT THIS DEAL MEAN FOR USERS?

If it is finalized and approved by CFIUS, TikTok would be allowed to continue operating in the U.S.

"Trump's executive order that effectively banned TikTok's U.S. business would likely no longer apply, as TikTok would no longer be owned by Bytedance," said Li.

"Executive orders can be revoked or modified at any time," she said.

However, Oracle's plans remain unclear.

"I doubt we'll see the creativity and consumer-friendliness that we might expect with a different owner," Li said.

Paul Haswell, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, expects Oracle to strive to keep TikTok's users.

"If the app changes or the user experience changes then the users might abandon the platform which completely undermines the value of TikTok and Oracle's acquisition," he said.

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