When President Trump suddenly announced that he intended to ban TikTok in the United States last week, all hell broke loose. Fearing they’d be cut off from their fans, TikTok users started posting farewell videos, and brands began backing away from the platform, fearing government backlash.
Now, it seems the app will be spared the ax thanks to a timely acquisition, reportedly by Microsoft. The company promised on Sunday that, if a deal goes through, it will transfer all private data on American users to the United States and keep it here. Microsoft would also be responsible for TikTok’s operations in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
This all raises one key question: How would any of this actually work? There are three distinct possibilities.
1. TikTok silos
One of the most obvious ways forward would be for Microsoft to create a spinoff of the app that only works in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, effectively walling users off from other versions (like the Irish and U.K. entities, for example).
The app could still appear as “TikTok” in app stores and operate the same, with Microsoft invisibly assuming development of the app in those markets. But, when users are in one of the five countries Microsoft has control over, they can only see or interact with users in those places; a user in the U.K., for example, might not be able to see a New Zealand user’s profile or content because the U.K. version remains under the control of ByteDance.
This scenario would create siloed versions of TikTok, but it would ensure that the right data is stored on U.S. servers and never commingles with Chinese-hosted data. However, it’s hard to imagine the app succeeding if there are separate worlds of TikTok that can’t see one another.
Not only would it be frustrating to be unable to follow friends in other territories, it would be a user experience nightmare: Would Microsoft’s TikTok retain the same features as the rest of the world, or move in a different direction? How would the companies work separately on the same app? Would users be told when they’re looking for someone that doesn’t exist in this version of TikTok?
All of that said, this outcome is not without precedent: There is already a separate version of TikTok exclusively within China called Douyin, which has more than 400 million daily active users.
2. One TikTok, separate data
A more likely scenario for a Microsoft-owned TikTok is a single app, governed by different data policies based on their user’s location, as was required of companies hosting European citizens’ data under the EU–U.S. “Privacy Shield” framework.
This version of the acquisition would see Microsoft essentially becoming a data operator and little more. It would move the data of users from the five acquired countries into the U.S. and allow the TikTok app to operate without major changes. Users could interact with each other and watch any video, but there would be strict rules about where that data is hosted and how it’s used.
Similar to the Privacy Shield legislation, Microsoft would need to disclose whenever data is moving between its version of TikTok and the ByteDance-owned service. The TikTok app’s features, algorithm, and functionality would remain largely unchanged, with ByteDance continuing development.
While this might be the simplest way forward, as more of a partnership between ByteDance and Microsoft, it also seems the least likely to be approved by the U.S. government, as it would require a large amount of trust or oversight into how the app is built by ByteDance on an ongoing basis, despite user data being hosted separately. It would still ultimately allow ByteDance to control the app, which would mean it would retain most of its ability to track users, which seems like a nonstarter for the Trump administration.
3. The TikTok platform
The most dramatic option would be for ByteDance and Microsoft to collaborate on a new TikTok platform enabled by a more open API.
Microsoft could create a standalone TikTok app for the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia and control user data in those countries, similar to the first example. But ByteDance could create an API that would allow content to flow across its services, so a U.S. user could watch TikTok video originating in the U.K. app, for example — which would be impossible in the siloed approach discussed above.
This outcome would operate in a similar way to using Twitter with a third-party client; you can see and use the Twitter service via an app like Tweetbot, but you can’t use all of its features, like polls, because they aren’t available unless you use the official app. Microsoft and ByteDance’s TikTok spinoffs would be able to “see” one another, but some features might not be available and the data, as well as the homepage algorithm, would be treated differently in each app.
The day of the migration would require ByteDance to block access to users in affected countries, pointing them to a new Microsoft-branded TikTok app to continue using the service. New users trying to sign up to ByteDance’s version in the U.S., for example, would also be redirected to the Microsoft version instead.
At first, “Microsoft TikTok” would look largely the same, but over time, it could diverge from the ByteDance app, adding its own functionality or features not available to users of the original app, and customizing its own newsfeed algorithm. It would be up to each company to support the features added by its counterpart over time, as is the case with third-party Twitter clients today.
Microsoft would be able to control the app’s tracking and algorithm within its own app, which would address the U.S. government’s privacy issues, and it would allow TikTok to evolve into a larger platform rather than becoming a separate walled garden like Douyin.
45 days to make a decision
There are many unanswered questions about all of this — including whether Microsoft will ultimately win the bid for TikTok at all. Assuming it does, my bet is that the deal hinges on the third option: TikTok as a platform, with Microsoft and ByteDance controlling their own destiny while retaining compatibility with one another.
Not only is it the best outcome for the service, but it’s also the one that makes the most sense for both parties: TikTok can live on largely intact, and still compete, rather than create a bunch of disconnected silos with the same name.
With just 45 days on the clock before the Trump administration plans to block TikTok if a deal isn’t reached, there isn’t much time to save the service — but a Microsoft acquisition seems like the best chance it has.