TikTok’s silly clips raise some serious questions

IF THIS ARTICLE were a TikTok video, it would already be almost over—and you would be smiling. TikTok’s 15-second clips are all the rage among teenage netizens. The app was downloaded more than 750m times in the past 12 months, more than Facebook plus its sister services, Instagram and WhatsApp, combined. Fun aside, TikTok raises serious questions—about data geopolitics, the power of internet incumbents and who sees what online.

TikTok is YouTube on steroids. It bombards users with self-repeating clips. It forms a genre of quick-hit entertainment: a prank, a dare, a teenager looking pretty. Most are produced by adolescents, with easy-to-use editing tools. The app makes money from adverts and commissions on digital tips. It may one day generate revenue from e-commerce, like its Chinese sister app, Douyin. Both are owned by ByteDance, a Beijing firm valued at $75bn, more than any other private startup.

The China connection has Washington in a tizzy. On November 1st it emerged that America’s government has opened a national-security review of ByteDance’s takeover in 2017 of Musical.ly, an app developed in China, which later became TikTok. On November 5th congressmen lambasted ByteDance for not showing up to a hearing.

Hawks argue that TikTok gives the government in Beijing access to data on millions of Americans and...



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