In only two months, Clubhouse has been the place of choice for luminaries such as Elon Musk or Drake to explore anything from telepathic monkeys to stock market valuations. But the actual champion of the stratospheric growth of the audio-chat app is a loss-making Shanghai startup called Agora Inc.
Agora, regarded as an industrious yet low-profile innovation tool provider largely inside tech circles, has risen more than 150 percent since mid-January when online buzz started to swirl about how it drives the world’s hottest new social networking site. That’s how the little-known company, now worth nearly $10 billion, provides developers with all they need to create voice and video functions in real-time inside applications: a template known as a package for software creation.
Agora — ancient Greek for a platform or sector — has been officially related to Clubhouse since its IPO last summer, but the extent to which the red-hot social media forum used its tech package remains unknown. According to two engineers familiar with the matter, the decompilation of the Clubhouse app exposes the name of Agora in the code, meaning Clubhouse uses at least part of the Chinese company’s SDK, who requested not to be called because the isolation of software code contradicts the iOS consumer policy of Apple
In conversations on the app, the co-founders of Clubhouse, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, said they use Agora, according to two individuals who heard such discussions but agreed not to be identified because Clubhouse does not talk about its tech stack publicly. And in an experiment this week, German software engineer Andreas Lehr told Bloomberg News that when connecting to Clubhouse, he analyzed traffic coming out of his phone and found some calls to agora.io.
However, beyond just boosting the stock price of Agora, the amorphous relation is beginning to raise questions about the app’s security. It is the same vague apprehension that binds unheard-of outfits to the largest of TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd. enterprises: that Beijing has the ability not only to insist that they fork over data at will, but also to pressure Chinese businesses to spy on its behalf. Agora refused to comment on its affiliation with Clubhouse, but said it takes privacy and protection seriously in a tweet.
“Just like in the case of Zoom, Agora still runs its centralized service in different jurisdictions,” said Suji Yan, the founder and chief executive officer of data privacy startup Mask Network, which builds a tool for users to post encrypted messages on Twitter and Facebook. “It’s hard for a public corporation like Agora not to respond to a local government’s request.”