TikTok is a phenomenon and now a direct competitor for video viewers to everyone from broadcast TV and cable services to Netflix and studio streamers. But what, if anything, can they do to stop the juggernaut?
Stop thinking of TikTok as a social network, for a start. As Vox media analyst Peter Kafka points out, the video-sharing app is “a colossally powerful entertainment app that keeps viewers glued to an endless stream of clips.”
Here are the stats: TikTok says it passed a billion users nearly a year ago, but even that number likely understates its importance, because TikTok users spend a lot of time on TikTok. The company told advertisers its users were spending nearly 90 minutes a day on the app and, crucially, the audience is Gen Z and younger.
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FCC Commissioner Urges Apple and Google to Remove TikTok from Stores
By Abby Spessard
TikTok is being questioned again about whether they can be trusted with users’ data. NPR’s Rachel Martin interviews FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has signed a letter asking Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their digital stores. “It’s looking at everything from search and browsing history, your keystroke patterns, biometric data, including face print and voice print — the face print stuff being things that could be used in facial recognition down the road — draft messages,” he said.
Within the last few weeks, Carr notes, there have been reports showing that a tremendous amount of data is being accessed by engineers in Beijing who work for TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. “I think that’s really disturbing,” says Carr. “It’s a national security threat, in my view. But short of that, it looks to me that it’s a violation of the app store policies of Google and Apple. And that’s why I wrote them saying they should enforce their policies and boot the app from the app store on that basis.”
But is it not sufficient that TikTok has said it moved America’s data to servers based in the US? “They’re saying they’re now moving it to an Oracle base infrastructure in the US. But they’ve been representing for a long time that it’s stored in the US.” Where, he asks, is the data being accessed?
“Even though they’re switching to Oracle, US-based, cloud-based services, it’s still going to be accessed in Beijing. In fact, they came out and said that, well, of course, some of the data is accessed there. But it’s only on an as-needed basis.” Yet that as-needed basis is different than how we would define it, Carr says, referencing leaked audios from internal TikTok meetings that show people saying, “quote, ‘everything is seen in China,’ end quote.”
The letter isn’t about an FCC rule or license, Carr explains, but app store policies. “They’ve [Apple and Google] enforced these policies before on companies that have surreptitiously taken data and moved it to China. They’ve done it against companies that are engaging in unauthorized uses and practices of data.”
National security issues aside, if Apple and Google apply the app store policies against TikTok, says Carr, “it looks to me that that’s enough to move them out of the app store.”
Media companies have been telling themselves that your network or service has content people simply can’t find on YouTube or Facebook or Instagram.
But TikTok eviscerates most of those arguments, says Kafka: “It’s a direct competitor for video eyeballs; it’s more compelling than the stuff you’re programming; and, just like a slot machine, it promises viewers that there’s always another dopamine hit just a swipe away.”
Kafka thinks Big Media isn’t doing anything to counter TikTok’s threat because they don’t see the threat coming down the track. Instead, Big Media are treating TikTok as a social media platform by advertising on it or placing teaser clips to entice punters to go to the cinema or subscribe to an SVOD.
“Right now, TikTok really expects media companies to act just like its users — by giving it content it can use to entertain other users,” says Kafka. “Still, it’s not clear if the entertainment companies putting free content on TikTok are helping themselves or helping TikTok.”
An unnamed studio executive told Vox that TikTok is “incredibly effective” at driving awareness for a film — just like a TV ad or a billboard — but says TikTok users are very unlikely to see a clip for a film and then go purchase a ticket. “They just don’t leave,” he said.
On the other hand, Sylvia George, who runs performance marketing for AMC Networks, says TikTok has been a good tool to prompt viewers to sign up for the company’s streaming services, like Shudder or AMC+. “It hasn’t proven to be this tangible threat that is taking people away from our platforms,” she says. “In some ways it’s the opposite.”
Facebook and Google are now in the unusual position of playing catchup. They’ve introduced their own “TikTok clones” like Facebook and Instagram’s Reels and YouTube’s Shorts. Facebook is also changing its algorithm to take on the rival, Alex Heath reports at The Verge.
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Yet TikTok’s ambitions are huge and growing: Where once could only place clips that ran for a few seconds on the service; now it’s up to 10 minutes. As the Wall Street Journal’s Dalvin Brown noted last year, TikTok is moving to the biggest screen in the home: to your connected TV set, where eyeballs are focused and where advertising supported video services are set to take off, Kafka calculates in a seperate article for Vox.
“If that works, it would compete even more directly with the streamers and networks,” Kafka says.
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Perhaps the only solution for the established media companies wanting to curb TikTok’s might is to hope for intervention from the US government. TikTok is, after all, owned by a Chinese company.
Recall that the Trump administration attempted in 2020 to ban TikTok, or at least force it to sell to a US bidder. Kafka and others call this “ham-handed and transparently jingoistic,” but there are plenty of people who have concerns about TikTok’s presence in the US.
One argument focuses on the potential for abuse of private data. Buzzfeed’s Emily Baker-White reported that TikTok physically stores all data about its US users in the US, with backups in Singapore. This does mitigate some risks — the company says this data is not subject to Chinese law — but it does not address the fact that China-based employees can access the data.
READ MORE: US TikTok User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed From China, Leaked Audio Shows (Buzzfeed News)
Another argument, explained by Kafka in an episode of Vox’s Recode Media podcast, focuses on the fact that TikTok could be an enormously powerful propaganda tool, if the Chinese government wanted to use it for that reason.
An op-ed from last month in The New York Times was headlined “TikTok May Be More Dangerous Than It Looks.” It declared: “Donald Trump was right, and the Biden administration should finish what he started.”