Sep 9, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

TikTok unites tech factions against it

Illustration of hands fighting over the Tik Tok logo.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok has managed to get everyone in tech on the same page, wherever they stand on regulation, antitrust and all the other controversies raging in the industry.

Driving the news: While TikTok had no official presence at the Code Conference, the Chinese-owned firm was the talk of the annual gathering of tech world notables this week — serving as the foil of choice for a parade of tech executives, pundits and even some government officials.

Why it matters: Growing as other giants slow, the social app for short video has emerged as a target for Silicon Valley giants worried about losing users and also for Beltway insiders who fear the company's ties to Beijing will undermine national security.

Be smart: It’s not what TikTok is doing today that has people most concerned, but rather what it could do with millions of users, many of them young people, and a powerful algorithm that seems perfectly tuned to reach their hearts and minds.

  • The nightmare scenario imagines China using the site to actively spread misinformation, sow discord or otherwise seek to manipulate a world of users that TikTok has grown to know so well.

At Code, Google CEO Sundar Pichai cited TikTok as both a growing rival to Google-owned YouTube and proof that competition is alive and well.

“The thing about being in tech, competition comes from nowhere,” Pichai said. “None of us were talking about TikTok three years ago.”

What they're saying: “There’s been two major themes so far" at Code, author and podcast host Scott Galloway told the conference crowd: "The first is Tik, the second is Tok.”

  • Galloway, who took every chance to call out the dangers of TikTok, was the sharpest critic in calling for it to be banned, but others were happy to join in.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel offered the most detailed take on TikTok’s growth, pointing to vast sums that Chinese parent ByteDance spent acquiring creators and customers to transform a little-known app into a global phenomenon.

  • "No startup could afford to invest billions and billions and billions of dollars in user acquisition like that around the world,” Spiegel said. "It wasn't an innovation-led strategy."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), whose antitrust bill specifically targets large tech companies and who has not been shy of questioning TikTok in the past, said her proposed antitrust bill would cover TikTok if the company grows large enough.

Only Apple CEO Tim Cook demurred from bashing the company. “I am not a TikTok expert,” he told the crowd.

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