The video app has been a runaway success around the world. But U.S. lawmakers have recently taken a strong disliking to it.
Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news:
Do you like TikTok? A lot of people do. The breezy music app has been downloaded nearly 1.5 billion times globally and 122 million times in the United States, according to the data firm Sensor Tower. It’s one of the fastest-growing cultural phenomena in years, and is more popular than Facebook among 13- to 16-year-olds in the United States, Axios reports.
That’s also why some people hate it.
Silicon Valley companies dislike it because it’s cashing in on a market opportunity — and they haven’t yet successfully replicated it, my colleague Jack Nicas wrote. He reported that Facebook’s clone, Lasso, has been downloaded fewer than 500,000 times; YouTube has been considering cribbing its features; and Google has held acquisition talks with Firework, a TikTok imitator.
Officials in the United States also worry about the Chinese ownership of an influential app. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opened a national security review of the Chinese company ByteDance’s acquisition of Muscial.ly, the American app that later became TikTok.
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Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, accused the app of “censoring content that is not in line with the Chinese government and Communist Party directives.” A Washington Post report appeared to support that theory:
Former U.S. employees said moderators based in Beijing had the final call on whether flagged videos were approved. The former employees said their attempts to persuade Chinese teams not to block or penalize certain videos were routinely ignored, out of caution about the Chinese government’s restrictions and previous penalties on other ByteDance apps.
And during a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, stoked fears about how TikTok may be forced to send data to the Chinese government because of laws there that require companies to comply with intelligence operations:
“A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching and what they share with each other.”
TikTok has denied these allegations. It says that it doesn’t send data to China, and that its California moderation team reviews content for adherence to United States policies.
That might not matter. The speed with which government officials are coming down on TikTok has made it look like Mark Zuckerberg had all the time in the world to prepare a defense for Facebook. And TikTok is being exposed to two vectors of attack — about social media censorship and the sharing of Americans’ data with China — that are both hot-button issues for lawmakers.