TikTok’s success has made it a big target for regulators

Technology

I.

A recurring theme of this newsletter is that I write about TikTok, make some dark prediction about its future, and then turn out to be totally wrong. In that spirit, I thought today we could look at the particularly newsy week the ByteDance-owned video app has had, and then contribute some additional speculation that I will later have to disown or apologize for.

Yesterday we talked about the audio-only social network Clubhouse, which found itself at the center of controversy after failing to take action or even make a public comment after users began to experience harassment within the app. Clubhouse took the same approach to trust and safety issues as most embryonic American social networks: do the bare minimum, and address any issues only after some portion of your user base identifies a crisis.

TikTok, on the other hand, took the opposite approach: censor almost everything, and allow new types of content only after angry public pressure campaigns. This dynamic was captured beautifully on Wednesday in a story in the Wall Street Journal that charts the company’s ever-evolving content policies, which have grudgingly adjusted over the past several months to welcome such previously verboten content as political protests, MAGA hats, “more than two inches of cleavage,” and … tattoos? Here are Georgia Wells, Shan Li , Liza Lin and Erich Schwartzel:

As TikTok has slowly rolled back certain restrictions, former moderators said they have been able to allow some curse words and, depending on the country, shirtless men, tattoos and alcohol.

They said that although tattoos remained taboo in China, moderators in the U.S. could allow small ones, such as little butterflies. In November, Dwayne Johnson, the actor and former wrestler known as The Rock, posted his first video to the app. In January, Tommy Lee, the drummer for the band Motley Crue, joined TikTok. Both have large tattoos.

Finally, people with larger butterfly tattoos on TikTok can participate in the Dogecoin challenge.

Of course, it’s easy to laugh at some of the puritanical content guidelines TikTok has established. And others that have since been walked back enforced oppressive beauty standards, reflected class bias, restricted political speech, or otherwise made the app hostile to various groups.

And yet when critics complain that tech executives “don’t care” about all the terrible content posted on their networks — well, this is what caring looks like! Because it was required to by the authoritarian Chinese government, TikTok took content moderation deadly seriously. The result was a stack of policies that are largely offensive to mainstream American sensibilities.

One question here is whether you can take moderation seriously from the start, the way TikTok has, while still allowing a range of expression that doesn’t penalize people for having tattoos. I think you can — I’ve been hearing more lately about some new social products that are trying — but I’m not sure a single company has gotten the balance right so far.

To its credit, TikTok has owned up to its overly draconian approach to the problem. “In its early days, TikTok took very blunt strategies, all in the sake of trying to keep the platform as positive as possible,” Eric Han, the app’s US head of safety, told the Journal. “That was unequivocally the wrong approach.”

For future startups, though, I’d argue it was a useful effort. American startups have had very few role models for businesses that made trust and safety a foundational pillar of their companies, because Section 230 means they don’t have to. But the protections afforded by Section 230 appear to be eroding, and questions of content moderation could be on the verge of becoming existential. For future startups that want to take a more measured approach, TikTok’s frantic tattoo takedowns will make for a useful case study.

II.

TikTok has other problems, though.

For example, the Secretary of State says the United States might ban it:

When asked in a Fox News interview if the U.S. should be looking at banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps, Pompeo said: “We are taking this very seriously. We are certainly looking at it.”

“We have worked on this very issue for a long time,” he said.

The Trump administration is “looking at” a lot of things, and many previous insane-sounding proposals have come and gone without ever being enacted. Others, such as President Trump’s Muslim ban, took a few tries — but eventually became law.

The trade war with China is very much real, though, and has already led to the Trump administration banning government use of Huawei and ZTE telecommunications equipment, for fear of espionage. Banning a social network owned by a Chinese company would be an unprecedented step for the United States, but not an unimaginable one. And, given that China bans American social networks from operating there, the move would have a certain turnabout-is-fair-play element to it.

TikTok has made several moves designed to promote the idea that the app is firewalled off from ByteDance proper and will not share user data with the Chinese government. (The company says it never has and never will, though security experts remain skeptical ByteDance could resist a serious challenge from the Chinese Communist Party.) TikTok is registered in the Cayman Islands, for example. And after Hong Kong passed a new national security law giving vast new surveillance powers to the Chinese Communist Party, TikTok led all social networks in pulling the app from Hong Kong.

But the regulatory pressure is piling up anyway. The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly investigating whether the company violated a 2019 consent decree meant to protect children’s privacy. And threats of a US ban, along with a Facebook-centered advertiser boycott in July that led some companies to pause advertising on all social platforms, has contributed to a rocky launch of the company’s new self-serve ad platform.

Meanwhile, India actually did ban the app, along with 58 others, on charges that they “engaged in activities … prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India.” (It came amid a border skirmish with China in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.) In April, 30 percent of TikTok downloads came from India, according to Sensor Tower, and so the blow to ByteDance landed particularly hard. Facebook, never one to waste a crisis, released its TikTok clone Reels in the company this week.

On one hand, TikTok’s cultural dominance is still ascendant. Kids are spending 80 minutes a day using the app, and entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles are seemingly being taken over by “collab houses.” And ByteDance has proven to be surprisingly nimble in navigating the regulatory challenges it has faced so far.

But it’s now clear that the company’s success has also made it a target. On one side there is an erratic, xenophobic American administration that relishes punitive bans; on the other is a brutal authoritarian regime. TikTok has been adept at navigating between those two superpowers to date — but I can’t be alone in wondering whether that can last forever.