December 3, 2023

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The social media app, once known for its cat videos and dance challenges, has become a political flashpoint for lawmakers in Washington.

In March, the Biden administration ordered the removal of TikTok, a platform with more than 150 million users in the United States, from federally issued devices over concerns that the app handles sensitive user data. The U.S. government later asked TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app due to national security concerns or risk facing a blanket ban in the U.S.

Politicians grilled TikTok’s chief during a tense congressional hearing last month about the company’s ties to the Chinese government, its handling of user data and concerns about children and teens using the app. Executive Zhou Shou. After the hearing, enthusiastic TikTok users came forward to defend Chew, who went viral on his platform.

Sapna Maheshwari, a New York Times business reporter who wrote about TikTok, covered the roughly five hours of hearings and later reported on China’s response to U.S. censorship of the app. In an edited interview, Ms Maheshwari discusses her reporting, Washington’s skepticism and what’s next.

What did you take away from the March 23rd hearing?

I was really shocked by the harsh tone of the legislator towards Shouzhou. The more than 50 lawmakers who questioned him seemed interested in using their five minutes to express their views on TikTok or ask very specific questions that mattered to their constituents. This is pretty aggressive and shows that our government doesn’t love TikTok much at the moment.

How much do you think the anti-China sentiment among politicians now has to do with this suspicion?

No politician is going to be blamed for being too tough on China right now, that’s definitely part of what’s going on. But lawmakers are sure to have some criticisms that could apply to other social media companies. The CEO of TikTok has mentioned this many times, indeed trying to defend the platform. If you’re talking about anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues among teens using TikTok, it’s reasonable to raise similar concerns on Instagram.

Similarly, on the issue of data privacy, TikTok’s CEO has repeatedly stated that its user data is safer than that of American technology companies. But people really aren’t interested in having that kind of conversation during hearings.

Where do you think TikTok will go?

What makes this story an incredibly riveting one, because it’s unprecedented in America. When you look back in history, the government never tried to ban the apps that 150 million Americans use on their smartphones. A lot of this is really yet to be determined, which makes it an exciting beat.

In the short term, the pace of the US government is not fast. We will wait and see how the negotiations between the Biden administration and TikTok will unfold. We’ve seen a lot of concern from TikTokkers saying, “Follow me on YouTube in case it gets banned” and taking different precautions. As we recently reported, ByteDance is working on a new app called Lemon8.

What do you think of Lemon8 so far? Is this an effort by ByteDance to circumvent measures taken against TikTok?

From what I understand from sources, they started discussing the matter with the ad agency in January.At the time, TikTok was nervous because they hadn’t heard from the Biden administration, so it’s possible they were worried about TikTok’s future in the U.S.

But Lemon8 seems to be a completely different kind of platform – they’re positioning it as a complementary app to TikTok. We found an interesting slide in Lemon8’s report; in its marketing materials, ByteDance showed a list of potential top app stores, with video editing tools CapCut, TikTok and Lemon8 in the top three.

I think it’s ByteDance not being intimidated, charging forward and thinking, “We’re going to be the biggest and best app maker in America.”

Is there anything particularly challenging about covering a growing platform like TikTok?

one One of the biggest challenges of covering technology platforms is their high degree of customization to your personal interests and your internet behavior. You don’t want to lock yourself into an island where you miss out on trends that other people see. I did a lot of checking with different companies that track popular content on TikTok, as well as people representing creators.

How often do you use TikTok in your personal life? Are privacy concerns affecting the way you use TikTok?

I definitely log in every day. I have seen firsthand how addictive it is. This feed is great at finding out what you like right away. I created several accounts to change content.

If I’ve never used TikTok, it’s really hard to cover TikTok at this point. Of course I was concerned after learning that ByteDance employees were spying on American journalists. The company said that was not their practice and that those were rogue employees. We’ll see what the FBI and DOJ find out.

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