ToTok founder responds to 'spying' controversy around video calls app

ToTok founder responds to 'spying' controversy around video calls app
ToTok founder responds to 'spying' controversy around video calls app

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - ToTok co-founder's exclusive interview with KT.

Terming the recent developments and malicious charges of spying as a "conspiracy", ToTok co-founder Giacomo Ziani said the free, secure calling and messaging app will be back in the market "as soon as possible and hopefully in the next few days".

In an interview with Al Khaleej Today, he assured users that ToTok is safe and treatment of personal data fully compliant with the local and international norms, as independently confirmed by the recent TRA statement. Ziani clarified that ToTok isn't a copy of the Chinese app YeeCall and elaborated on how the company was allowed to operate in the UAE as a pilot project, which had met all regulatory requirements. In an act of transparency, the co-founders have welcomed Apple and Google to visit ToTok office to address problems and reinstate the app on their stores.

Also see: The ToTok controversy - so far

Excerpts from the Q&A with Giacomo Ziani:

Give us a brief history about ToTok. Where is the company based out of?

It all started with my cofounder Long Ruan, recognising a business opportunity to create a new consumer digital platform in the Mena region. Long has a successful record in building and commercialising mobile apps. During his last venture running a communication app called YeeCall in China, Long saw the untapped demand for mobile services by Mena users. While visiting the UAE, Long met me (then a business development professional). I've been working in the country for three years, with previous experience in numerous digital startups in Italy. As we joined forces, our objective was 'speed to market'. We took advantage of the excellent startup incentives in Abu Dhabi, and engaged two private local investors who believed in our potential. During our incubation, we used the Apple developer account under Breej Holding Limited, registered in the ADGM Free Zone of Abu Dhabi. We worked for months round-the-clock to develop the public version of ToTok. We officially launched ToTok in August 2019, when our ToTok company was set up in the ADGM Free Zone. In less than two months, we celebrated two million user downloads. Since then, the app continues to grow fast, in the UAE and worldwide - thanks to its ease of use and unlimited communication capability.

Why did you find the need to launch a free calling app and how is it different from the several others available?

We were attracted by the high-growth potential to build a vibrant digital ecosystem in the Mena region. Unlike in the western countries, where the ecosystem of apps (Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram) is pervasive, or in China, which is dominated by the WeChat superapp, we saw here an opportunity to develop our product and penetrate a growing market at a faster rate.

We differ from other apps for our superior product features that our users love, such as excellent audio/video quality and the rich community functionality like group calling for up to 20 people, and group chatting for up to 10,000 people and many others. It is not us bragging. Over 30,000 positive users reviews on Google and Apple stores are our proof.

The app was an instant hit among users in the GCC region, particularly the UAE. What do you think were the reasons for this?

 We have built a fantastic product that people love. And of course, it is free. ToTok was fortunate to come to the market at a time when the UAE was updating the policy on VoIP service, mostly due, we believe, to the approaching of Expo 2020.

The UAE had already released multiple public statements in this regard. ToTok was allowed as a pilot project, because we were new, had no market share, and from a clean slate we met all the UAE requirements to operate in the country (for example, our employees work and live in the country).

Just how popular is the app in the UAE and region?

We are the most popular app in the Mena region and one of the most downloaded in the world, reaching tens of millions of users in hundreds of countries.

UAE residents were surprised when they got a message from Botim - a paid VoIP service in the country - asking them to switch to ToTok, a free calling app. Do you have a tie-up with Botim?

 We are exploring the opportunity to collaborate with Botim. We ran a test by sending a message to a selected number of Botim users to understand the user preferences and the migration between the apps.

How secure is your app? What kind of security features have you incorporated?

We follow the highest security standards in the market. All data is strongly encrypted with AES256 and the transmission channel is well protected by RSA2048 and AES256. In addition, we are always working to enhance the security even further in our app.

There have been allegations that the app is used for 'spying'. Do you categorically deny this?

We firmly deny this baseless accusation, and we are profoundly saddened by this complete fabrication that was thrown at us. We feel caught up in some vile conspiracy against the UAE, and even jealousy by some people, who do not wish an app like ours from this region to ever become a global player.

Are there any independent evaluations that can verify the app is secure?

The irony is that our accusers requested a technical analysis by a former NSA employee who concluded that ToTok "simply does what it claims to do, and really nothing spyware, no backdoors and no malware".

Why was the app taken off Google and Apple stores?

Unfortunately, we believe both Apple and Google acted prematurely. Both companies reviewed and approved our app for months, version after version, as we updated it to enhance its functionalities. As we speak, we can confirm we are having a productive dialogue with Google, which highlighted some areas of improvement on the app. We already submitted an updated version which we believe to be sufficient to have our app reinstated on the Playstore anytime now.

On the Apple side, there is less traction due to the holiday season. As per a communication shared on the Apple Developer console, "the Apple review team will be back to work on December 28". We are confident we will be able to jointly address any issues with Apple.

How soon will the app be reinstated on the stores?

We hope in the next few days. This suspension is temporary, but it is affecting our global community and hurting our business. It is unfathomable to us that completely false accusations are free to propagate. In the spirit of full transparency, we already extended an open invitation to Apple and Google to visit our office in person.

Will it continue to be available over your website and from marketplaces of smartphone makers?

Yes, most certainly.

Why do you think the app was targeted?

 We are not sure, but we can firmly state that ToTok is an independent, privately-owned startup like many others in the world, with no ties to the government. In addition to this, we comply with local and international regulations of all the countries we operate in.

We can also add that in the weeks before the rumours started circulating, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the US, and our global popularity might have raised some concerns.

Another reason might be found in the ongoing trade war between the US and China. ToTok was accused of being built as a copy of a Chinese messaging app, YeeCall. One of our cofounders, Long Ruan, was indeed a former member of YeeCall, and we purchased its code to speed our development. We started building ToTok on this base and the ToTok app now is materially different from the YeeCall code. So, stating that ToTok is a copy of YeeCall is simply false. Regardless, the Chinese origin of any technology should not be a valid reason to discredit a product, business, or team.

What do you have to tell UAE residents who are concerned about their privacy after negative reports about the app?

First, we want to tell them the accusations are categorically false. All our users, in the UAE and abroad, should not be scared by such fabrication. Second, as already stated in our previous note, user privacy and data security have always been our top priority. Our app and the treatment of personal data are fully compliant with all local and international regulations. After all, Apple and Google approved and published our app for months now. In addition, we only use the user data in accordance with the user given consent and for the sole purpose to improve the user experience while using the app.

Will you be adding more security features to allay privacy fears?

There is no end to security enhancement, and we are always working to improve it in addition to building many other new user features.

Will the app always remain free?

We believe communications should always be free. It is not a privilege. It is a right.

What kind of upgrades can users look forward to?

We are planning to launch many new exciting features. In fact, since day one, we envisioned ToTok as much more than a communication app, but as the foundation of a digital ecosystem, to provide our users with news, payment, gaming and other services.

What is the future of free calling apps in general?

With the rise of 5G technology, we expect to see more and more apps to venture into the domains of VR, AR and holograms.

Do you plan to launch any other apps?

Yes, we are looking to add more apps to our digital ecosystem.

What is the income of the company and if you have a plan to publicly list it?

ToTok is projected to become profitable as it adds new services and functionalities on top of its existing platform. What we can ensure here, is that calling and messaging will always remain free. IPO is one of the exit strategies we may consider in the future.

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