What you need to know
Downloads of the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok have surged during Covid-19. The app's weak record on privacy and security should be a cause for concern.
How did an app developed by eight people in 200 days, launched to little fanfare in September 2016 in a competitive Chinese market, become a global phenomenon during the Covid-19 pandemic?
TikTok, a short video app developed by Beijing-based software firm ByteDance, has surpassed 2 billion downloads, including 315 million between January through March, more than any other app over the same period. It was the third most downloaded non-gaming mobile app in the world, behind only Facebook-owned instant messaging platforms WhatsApp and Messenger.
From its inception, the app sought to differentiate itself from competing apps through a focus on video editing, allowing even young amateurs to produce professional-looking short videos. The app also keeps users watching by automatically playing videos displayed, eschewing a play button. The average user stays on for 52 minutes a day, despite each video only lasting a maximum of 15 seconds.
The app’s young audience (nearly half of its users are aged 24 and below) may inspire commonplace gripes about declining youth attention span. But this youth “pivot to video” transcends age. One study has shown that the majority of senior business executives, for example, would prefer to watch a video over reading the same content in text.
TikTok’s competition in the social short video market has collapsed, as well. It boasts of an ever-growing set of viral stars, many of whom joined the platform in 2017 when rival services Vine shut down and Musical.ly was acquired.
As TikTok rises in global prominence, its Chinese background has triggered unease among Western authorities concerned about national security.
In February 2019, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok US$5.7 million for illegally collecting the personal data of its users under the age of 13. The fine prompted the UK to open its own investigations into whether TikTok violated data protection laws. In late 2019, two U.S. senators raised the possibility of TikTok users having their data unknowingly shared with the Chinese Communist Party.
However, TikTok’s security and privacy risks are in other ways unremarkable. Popular U.S. developed apps have shown themselves to be just as prone to security flaws, if not more so, than TikTok on similar issues. YouTube, for instance, was also fined US$107 million for illegally collecting children’s data. Facebook saw personal data of 50 million users leaked in 2018 when hackers exploited a security flaw in the system.
The similarities in securities issues with TikTok and some of America’s internet giants begs the question of whether the attack on TikTok by Western authorities really is a disinterested concern about data privacy. Just as the accusation by the U.S. government of Huawei’s security risks intertwines with the American effort to thwart the firm’s aspirations to corner global 5G telecommunications networks, a government-led highlighting of TikTok’s security risks cannot be separated from political concerns and defense of American technology company monopolies.
The political implications of TikTok’s global success may mean the dominance, at least among the internet-savvy global youth, of a communication tool approved by Chinese authorities.
The app has been accused of “moderating” away anti-Beijing content, even outside China. Concerns that anti-Western propaganda sugarcoated by TikTok’s trendy setup is buttressed by reports of ByteDance assisting the Chinese government to spread propaganda at home. The possibility of TikTok doing the same outside China to a receptive audience of hundreds of millions of young users can be a source of alarm.
Even as security and political concerns mount, the growth of TikTok continues. From 2018 to 2019, the app saw a 70 percent increase in the number of users and 500 percent increase in in-app spending by users. The app is forecasted to grow by 22 percent again this year in the U.S. alone. Those who are seeking to derail TikTok’s continued march toward global popularity certainly have their work cut out for them.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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