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TikTok's rise lands it in critics' crosshairs

A TikTok logo is seen on a mobile device. Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A TikTok logo is seen on a mobile device. Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As TikTok's popularity surges, the Chinese-owned karaoke app is facing rapidly rising headwinds from critics who paint it as a threat to individual users' privacy as well as a geopolitical stalking horse for Chinese interests.

The big picture: As my Axios colleague Sara Fischer reports, TikTok has now hit a milestone — among 13–16 year olds, it's more popular than Facebook.

Adapted from the Morning Consult's Influencer Report; Chart: Axios Visuals

Driving the news: Success has brought the app into a harsher spotlight.

1. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has been highly critical of U.S. tech companies' relationships with China, asked TikTok to appear on Capitol Hill at a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, and then left an empty chair when the company failed to show.

2. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called TikTok "China's best detective" and pressed the company on children’s privacy and in-app purchases in a letter Tuesday.

  • Blackburn accused TikTok of "manipulating children's online purchases" through the sale of virtual gift emojis.

3. CFIUS: The U.S. agency charged with overseeing foreign investments is reportedly probing TikTok parent Bytedance's 2018 acquisition of Muscal.ly, a similar app that Bytedance purchased and renamed.

4. The Federal Trade Commission: Musical.ly agreed to a $5.7 million settlement earlier this year to resolve an FTC investigation into whether it had illegally collected children’s personal information.

Yes, but: TikTok's success with young creators and audiences is also winning it broader support from other tech companies.

  • Adobe, for example, announced this week it is adding the ability to directly export to TikTok as a new feature in the latest version of its Premiere Rush social video app.
  • "We see it as a leading platform for short-form video and there's a ton of creativity happening there," Adobe product chief Scott Belsky said in an interview.

What they're saying: In a blog post, TikTok said it has taken steps to assure independent decision-making, including basing its content moderation team in the U.S. and storing all U.S. user data outside of China.

"They want to be a global company, and numbers-wise, they've had that success. But the purse is still in China: The money always comes from there, and the decisions all come from there."
— a former ByteDance manager who left this year, to the Washington Post

Details: Denver-based Special Counsel performed a data storage and security audit commissioned by TikTok.

  • Doug Brush, the firm's VP of cybersecurity services, told Axios' Kim Hart that TikTok encrypts all data when it's stored and transmitted, and that U.S. residents' data was found to only hit U.S. servers.
  • "I would characterize them as an organization that does take security seriously and they have the right processes in place," Brush said.

The bottom line, from former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos: "It's trendy to pretend that concerns about Chinese tech domination are just a smoke screen by U.S. executives, but if you actually care about privacy, safety and content moderation then you need to pay attention to TikTok."

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