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TikTok: here to stay or set for closure? And should we even care?

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

When millions of like/view counts suddenly went to zero on TikTok last week, TikTokers thought it was the first sign the app had been banned. It was a glitch, but their fears are far from unfounded.

Currently banned in India and with the US eyeing a security ban, how long will TikTok last in Australia?

How big is TikTok?

The viral video app is owned by China-based Bytedance, the most valuable private startup in the world (~$100B).

Within a few months of its 2018 US launch, TikTok reached #1 on the App Store, beating giants like Instagram and YouTube. In 2019, TikTok had over 738 million global downloads.

Today, TikTok has been downloaded over 2B times and has an estimated 1.6 million Australian users.

Why is TikTok under threat?

Clock's TikToking... Security concerns around TikTok's ties to China are heating up. The US already bans employees of many government agencies (like the Army) from having TikTok on work phones. Last week, Amazon told employees to remove it from company devices, then weirdly backtracked.

India has full-on banned TikTok (and 58 other Chinese apps) on national security concerns. India was TikTok's largest market by far, driving 660 million downloads since 2017. This may cost Bytedance $6 billion in lost ad sales.

Trump said he's considering banning TikTok and other Chinese apps. Leaked moderation guidelines reveal TikTok has censored content critical of China. And the administration is worried American user data could be passed to the Chinese govt.

China itself banned TikTok — Chinese nationals use Bytedance's Douyin, the original, non-international version of TikTok: same branding, same parent, separate content (which is censored by the Chinese govt).

TikTok and a free media

TikTok’s explosive growth has major implications for media. It's the biggest threat to disrupting social giants like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. And it's uncertain if the move by TikTok to take out full-page ads in newspapers asking not to be made into a "political football" will help allay fears.

Most people are uncertain about TikTok because they’re concerned about its access to personal data and connection to China, yet there’s little consideration for how other social channels access and use data – remember Cambridge Analytica?

Yes, TikTok had been reading the clipboard information on users’ devices (that is where something is stored when you click copy on text or an image). TikTok explained this was so it could detect users spamming comments and has since fixed it.

The Washington Post investigated the app and found that while it was sending an “abnormal” amount of data back to servers (none of which the Post could determine were based in China), it was the standard phone information that apps often use to fingerprint a device, and similar to what other apps such as Facebook collect.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg grilled by US Congress over data misuse

But, its similarity to Facebook shouldn’t bring a sigh of relief, but a reminder that although people are now worried about the national security implications of what apps might be collecting on us, it can often pale in comparison to the privacy implications of what apps actually collect on us, if just for advertising purposes.

A lawsuit has already been filed against LinkedIn for – like TikTok and dozens of other apps – reading people’s clipboards.

These new privacy alerts will not be of interest to everyone. Many people have adopted the attitude that, to paraphrase the debate that happened when the Covidsafe contact tracing app launched, “You willingly already handed this data over to Facebook, why should you care?”

Concern about TikTok is not just about data ethics – it's about politics - the only reason governments or politicians have raised concerns about what apps or websites collect on their users is when it has political implications, such as TikTok or Cambridge Analytica, or when Grindr was sold back to a US company after national security concerns were raised about the app’s then-Chinese owners.

All tech companies are subject to the laws of the countries they operate in and must make a judgement call as to whether to abide by those laws. The transparency reports put out by Twitter, Google, Facebook and even TikTok reveal just how many requests from government authorities they receive each year and whether they comply with them (in some cases).

Giving users more control over what is collected in the first place would mean people can make more informed choices about what they’re comfortable about handing over.

And what’s this got to do with content? More TikTok bans could be coming — and that would significantly reduce competition for media companies – plus, isn’t closing a hugely popular channel based on misinformation and politics just censorship?

Speaking of socials, is Snapchat set to win social commerce? Read more here


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