TikTok is a Chinese-owned video-sharing app in which users upload short video segments of up to one minute and share with others. These videos frequently feature lip-synced song performances, beauty tutorials, comedic sketches, dance performances and more. TikTok has in its four year history so far become a global phenomenon and boasts a staggering 500 million active users.
Yet controversies surrounding TikTok have been an almost constant feature since its worldwide release back in 2018. During the summer of its major release it was blocked in Indonesia following concerns of it “spreading pornography and blasphemy among pre-teen users”. This ban was ultimately lifted after TikTok agreed to hire a team to work specifically with censoring content for the Indonesian market.
TikTok has similarly found itself in legal issues in Bangladesh and, more recently, India, where it has been banned indefinitely by the government in part as retaliation for the military standoff on its shared border with China. Furthermore, this year it has come to the forefront also of a political spat between the Trump administration and China.
Domestically, TikTok content is heavily censored by Chinese authorities to guarantee that political dissidence is not propagated on its platform. In the west, the concern among many, including the Trump administration, is that China is leveraging a similar toolset to gauge the public opinion and private data of citizens in liberal democracies such as the United States.
Towards the end of 2019, scrutiny was directed towards the owners of TikTok for the perceived behaviour of collecting and storing sensitive user data on dubious grounds. This scrutiny apparently yielded results as Pompeo declared in July that the US was looking to ban the app. This was echoed shortly thereafter by President Trump, stating that he was looking to carry out such a ban.
While the fate of TikTok remains unclear – Microsoft is rumoured to be looking into acquiring the app and transferring ownership to American business – these national security issues have in any case raised serious concern among the app’s users. The question of how exactly the Chinese owners are handling users data, alongside general security worries, is slowing the growth of the app and making many potential consumers think twice before downloading it.
This more general issue of how consumers can know which apps to trust and which not to trust is only going to become a more pressing concern as digital markets become increasingly global and regionalization increasingly difficult with technological progress. Other than heavy-handedly outright banning apps, there is little that governments can do to restrict app design and usage in their own countries. For this reason onus is placed on consumers to responsibly select which apps to install and use.
Fortunately, an emerging market is forming around the design goal of providing users with expert reviews on apps within certain sectors. Online gambling, for example, has LabSlots to provide data-driven review and analysis of online casinos. Users of digital games refer to sites such as OpenCritic for aggregated reviews of games. The market niche for such an approach to social media apps is clear and is likely to be filled in the near future as governments continue to grapple with the balance of authoritarian and open-bordered approaches to internationally owned apps.