Today let’s think out loud about TikTok, perhaps the most vexing and fascinating expression of Big Tech power since Google in the early 2000s. I’ve written about TikTok several times, and today’s news, from the Wall Street Journal, raises fresh questions that feel under-appreciated.
First, the background. As most of you likely know, TikTok is owned by a large Chinese company called ByteDance. In less than five years, TikTok has hijacked the very heart of Big Tech’s consumer business in the United States – our attention. Nearly 100 million US consumers will spend an average of more than 90 mins a day watching TikTok this year. That’s time that Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and every other consumer tech and media company can’t get back. Here’s Scott Galloway’s visualization of the trend, from a piece last Fall:
Of course, time is money when your money comes from advertising. TikTok is hands down the most significant threat to the US digital media business that’s ever emerged – and it came not from a garage in Palo Alto, but from a massive Chinese company under the direct control of the Chinese government.
And how has TikTok effected such a breathtaking success? According to pretty much everyone – including TikTok – it’s the company’s super charged package of advanced artificial intelligence plus a highly effective algorithm – a black box paying attention to what we pay attention to, then giving us more of what we want.
Here you have the ingredients for a narrative everyone wants to believe – a seductive mind virus from a hostile nation, driven by scary algorithms and possibly sentient AI. No wonder US politicians – both in the statehouse and in Congress – have begun to take notice, voting to ban TikTok on government devices, and even threatening to ban the app from the US market altogether.
Which brings us to today, and back to the Journal piece. Ever since the Trump administration’s ham-handed attempt to force TikTok into divestiture, its parent company has been hard at work trying to win over the hearts and minds of regulators in the US government. A nearly two-year negotiation has centered on ring-fencing TikTok’s operations – in particular its data – inside the United States. The Journal picks it up:
“In recent conversations with Washington lawmakers and civil-society organizations, TikTok has revealed details of a complex, $1.5 billion plan to reorganize the company’s U.S. operations.”
Now this is interesting. How will a Chinese-owned company – reliant on its parent for nearly all its technology infrastructure and beholden to that same parent financially – how exactly is that company going to “reorganize” so as to prove its black box technologies are safe for US consumers?
Unfortunately, details are sparse in the Journal piece, raising far more questions than they answer. Here’s what I could glean:
- All of TikTok’s “systems” will be housed on Oracle technology – a move TikTok claims is nearly complete.
- TikTok will create a special unit, called U.S. Data Security, or USDS, that will only have US employees, and be responsible for “safeguarding the app and report to an outside board of directors whose primary fiduciary responsibility would be to [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.], instead of ByteDance.”
- USDS will “create a system for monitoring the secret algorithms that power TikTok’s video-sharing app.”
- “Third party monitors” and Oracle employees will have access to the code that runs TikTok’s services in the US.
And…that’s it. That’s the meat of the revelations so far. TikTok’s operations will reside with a US company (Oracle), and a US-based “special unit” reporting to the US government will have oversight over how it works.
If you’re skeptical any of this could ever work, you’d be in good company. Exactly who are we supposed to trust to oversee TikTok’s service? If we’ve learned anything about the algorithms driving today’s surveillance capitalism, it’s that no one understands exactly how they work – not Mark Zuckerberg, not Sundar Pichai, and certainly not a group of middle managers from Oracle and the US government.
Perhaps the most confounding thing about this proposed plan is how it intersects with one of the most vexing problems in all of digital society: Content moderation and the role of a free press in democracy. Here’s Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.), who co-sponsored legislation banning TikTok from operating in the U.S.
“For younger users, the concern isn’t that they’re using TikTok just to watch stupid videos….It’s that they’re relying on TikTok to get their news.”
Ummm…hey Mr. Gallagher, can I interest you in a story from 2016?
The idea that we can somehow solve for TikTok by adding layers of technical and governmental bureaucracy is simply breathtaking. And even if such a mousetrap could be built, the Journal correctly notes that:
TikTok also will likely need approval from Beijing for any structures that involve the company’s content-recommendation algorithms.
Oh right, that.
Grab your popcorn, folks, this is going to be one hell of a show.