ByteDance drops TikTok’s U.S. sale, to partner with Oracle: sources

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By Echo WangGreg Roumeliotis

 (Reuters) – ByteDance has abandoned the sale of TikTok in the United States to pursue a partnership with Oracle Corp ORCL.N that it hopes will spare it a U.S. ban while appeasing China, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

 

The Beijing-based firm had been in talks to divest the business to Oracle or a consortium led by Microsoft Corp MSFT.O after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the sale last month and threatened to shut down the short-video app in the country.

While TikTok is best known for dancing videos that go viral among teenagers, U.S. officials are concerned user information could be passed to China’s communist government. TikTok, which has as many as 100 million U.S. users, has said it would never share such data with Chinese authorities.

Sale negotiations were upended when China updated its export control rules last month, giving it a say over the transfer of TikTok’s algorithm to a foreign buyer. Reuters reported last week that China would rather see TikTok shut down in the United States than allow a forced sale.

On Monday, China’s state-run English television channel CGTN cited sources as saying ByteDance will not sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to Oracle or Microsoft, and will not give the source code for the platform to any U.S. firm.

Under Bytedance’s latest proposal, Oracle will be the firm’s technology partner and assume management of TikTok’s U.S. user data, sources told Reuters on Sunday. Oracle is also negotiating taking a stake in TikTok’s U.S. operations, they said.

The data is currently stored in Alphabet Inc’s GOOGL.O cloud.

Some of ByteDance’s top investors, including General Atlantic and Sequoia, will also be given minority stakes in those operations, one of the people said.

PRECEDENT

It is unclear whether Trump, who wants a U.S. technology firm to own most of TikTok in the United States, will approve the deal. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews deals for national security risk, is overseeing the ByteDance-Oracle talks.

“User data protection and assurances around how the company’s algorithms push content to U.S. users are thoughtful components of a substantive solution, but whether they can change political outcomes is a much more difficult question,” said regulatory lawyer John Kabealo, who is not involved in the talks.

ByteDance plans to argue that CFIUS’ approval two years ago of China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co Ltd’s [OWREAC.UL] purchase of U.S. insurer Genworth Financial Inc GNW.N offers a precedent for its proposal with Oracle, the sources said.

In that deal, China Oceanwide agreed to use a U.S.-based, third-party service to manage Genworth’s U.S. policyholder data. ByteDance will argue a similar arrangement with Oracle can safeguard TikTok’s U.S. user data, the sources said.

ByteDance and Oracle did not respond to requests for comment. The White House declined to comment.

WALMART BLOW

Oracle’s chairman Larry Ellison is one of the tech world’s few Trump supporters. His firm has significant technological prowess in handling and safeguarding data, but no social media experience as its clientele comprises companies, rather than consumers.

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Peking University professor of investment Jeffrey Towson said Oracle’s ownership of TikTok’s U.S. operations with access but not ownership of ByteDance’s core technology mirrored how many Western companies operate in China.

Earlier on Sunday, Microsoft said ByteDance had informed it that it would not be selling it TikTok’s U.S. operations. Walmart Inc WMT.N, which had joined Microsoft’s bid, said it was still interested in investing, and that it would talk further with ByteDance and other parties.

“This is bad news for Walmart more than anyone else,” said Towson. “Combining TikTok’s entertainment and user engagement with its e-commerce platform was its best shot at catching up” with Amazon.com Inc AMZN.O.

TRUMP’S ORDERS

As Sino-U.S. relations deteriorate over trade, Hong Kong’s autonomy, cybersecurity and the spread of the novel coronavirus, TikTok has emerged as a flashpoint.

A smartphone with the Tik Tok logo is seen in front of a displayed Oracle logo in this illustration taken, Septemeber 14, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Trump signed two executive orders last month targeting TikTok and ByteDance. The first, effective Sept. 20, bans U.S. companies from transacting with them. The second requires ByteDance to sell TikTok by Nov. 12.

Were Trump to agree to ByteDance’s proposed Oracle deal, he would have to rescind his order calling specifically for divestment.

As many as 40% of Americans back Trump’s threat to ban TikTok if it is not sold to a U.S. buyer, a Reuters/Ipsos national poll found last month. Among Republicans – Trump’s party – 69% said they supported the order, though only 32% expressed familiarity with the app.

‘UNTRUSTED’ APPS

The White House has stepped up efforts to purge what it deems “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks. Beyond TikTok, Trump has also issued an order prohibiting transactions with Tencent Holding Ltd’s 0700.HK messenger app WeChat.

Earlier this year, Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd 300418.SZ sold gay dating app Grindr, bought in 2016, for $620 million after CFIUS ordered its divestment.

ByteDance acquired Shanghai-based video app Musical.ly – whose user base was largely American – for $1 billion in 2017 without seeking CFIUS approval, relaunching it as TikTok the following year. Reuters reported last year that CFIUS was investigating TikTok.

Reporting by Echo Wang and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Melissa Fares in New York, Stephen Nellis in San Fransisco and Yingzhi Yang in Beijing; Writing by Joshua Franklin; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Christopher Cushing

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Reuters

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