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China’s TikTok Tries To Avoid the Backlash—Data Sheet

October 16, 2019, 12:51 PM UTC

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In a piece in our CEO Daily newsletter earlier this year, I marveled at the global success of TikTok, the video-sharing app created and controlled by Chinese startup Beijing ByteDance. In the months since, TikTok’s rise has gathered speed, especially in America where the app has been downloaded more than 80 million times.

From January 2018 through March of this year, TikTok was the most downloaded app on the Apple iTunes Store; in the quarter ending in June, it was eclipsed in number of downloads only by YouTube. That makes TikTok, launched in 2017, China’s most successful internet export by far.

If you’ve never heard of TikTok, that probably means you are not a teenager and don’t live with one. The gist, as Oprah Magazine explains, is that TikTok helps users to “shoot, edit, and share 15-second videos jazzed up with filters, music, animation, special effects, and more.”

Like other social media platforms, TikTok allows users to follow, like, and comment on content generated by others. A crucial difference, though, is that what you see on TikTok isn’t determined by your social network. Instead, the app uses artificial intelligence to intuit what sort of videos you’d like. As the New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino puts it, “TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.”

The New York Times last week invited five critics to share reflections after spending “48 Hours in the Strange and Beautiful World of TikTok.” They mostly turned thumbs up: TikTok, enthused one reviewer, is “a bottomless gumball machine, serving up ephemeral treats.”

So far, ByteDance, whose investors include Softbank and KKR, has proved remarkably adept at keeping that gumball machine from getting smashed up in the escalating U.S.-China trade war. Even as the Trump administration added dozens of Chinese tech companies to a national security blacklist, TikTok quietly continued to invade (or rather, get invited into) the bedrooms of millions of American teenagers.

Now TikTok, too, has come under scrutiny. Last week, Florida’s Republican senator Marc Rubio formally requested that the Treasury review ByteDance on national security grounds. He charges that, a China-based video sharing company acquired by Bytedance in 2017 and merged with TikTok, censored content on behalf of the Chinese government.

In a statement, TikTok said the Chinese government doesn’t request censorship of its content and, in any case, wouldn’t have jurisdiction because the company doesn’t operate in China. TikTok says it stores all U.S. user data in the United States, and that its content is reviewed by a U.S.-based team that adheres to U.S. laws and is “not influenced by any foreign government.”

At the very least, though, Rubio’s challenge underscores that way U.S. politicians can make life difficult for Chinese tech companies operating in America. In the meantime, Chinese officials are punishing the National Basketball Association for Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong.

Clay Chandler

On Twitter: @claychandler


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Pulling rabbits out of my hat. As "Techtober" rolls on, it was Google's turn to introduce a new hardware line up. This time around, that included the Pixel 4 and 4 XL phones, with radar-based motion sensors and an amazing speech-to-text app, a new $650 Chromebook called the Pixelbook Go, and some smart home gadgets under the Nest brand. Oh yeah, and you can't be a tech company anymore unless you sell smart earbuds. The Pixel Buds arrive in 2020 for $180.

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On the dole. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been a vocal critic of big tech companies. On Tuesday, Warren said she would only accept donations from people who work in tech of $200 or less. Warren is also banning large contributions from people who work for fossil fuel and pharmaceutical companies. "Getting big money out of politics is a critical part of fighting corruption," she said.

Virtual meltdown. Friends star (and soon to be Apple TV+ star) Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram on Tuesday. Aniston's popularity briefly crashed part of the service, though the glitch was quickly resolved, People reports. As of Wednesday morning, Aniston had already amassed more than 7 million followers.

Not entirely. In a less fun social media development, Twitter said offensive tweets from world leaders which are not taken down would be limited, instead. Other users won't be able to like, retweet, or share such tweets that violate Twitter's guidelines. “We want to make it clear today that the accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely,” the company explained.


This is almost a "dog bites man" story, media lingo for an angle that's almost too obvious, but remember when Apple added all those features to help parents limits their kids screen time? Turns out, those tech-savvy juveniles have been going online and trading tips for how to get around the limits. Washington Post reporter Reed Albergotti catalogs the many places and methods that the younger generation has developed. Handy to have them all listed in one place...

On Reddit and YouTube, kids are sharing tips and tricks that allow them to circumvent Screen Time. They download special software that can exploit Apple security flaws, disabling Screen Time or cracking their parents’ passwords. They search for bugs that make it easy to keep using their phones...“These are not rocket science, backdoor, dark Web sort of hacks,” said Chris McKenna, founder of the Internet safety group Protect Young Eyes. “It blows me away that Apple hasn’t thought through the fact that a persistent middle school boy or girl can bang around and find them.”


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Aaron Pressman

On Twitter:@ampressman


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