Tech News

Sale or No Sale, TikTok Will Never Be the Same

The end of TikTok has begun. As the dust settles from a week of shockingly fast legislative action by the US Congress, it’s clear that TikTok next year will look much different from the TikTok we’re using today.

When President Joe Biden signed a $95 billion dollar foreign aid package on Wednesday, it brought to life a nightmare that has haunted TikTok for more than four years. If TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, refuses to divest its stakes in the company, the United States will ban the app nationwide. The signing started the clock, giving TikTok 270 days to find a new owner. (As The Washington Post’s Cristiano Lima-Strong noted, TikTok’s time will run out the day before Inauguration Day 2025.)

There are a few ways this could all shake out. An American company or private equity fund could buy TikTok and its powerful recommendation algorithm. Or, a buyer might have to accept just the bones of the platform without that algorithmic muscle; The Information reported on Thursday that ByteDance has already started gaming out what a sale without the algorithm would look like. Or, perhaps no buyer can be found and TikTok goes poof.

Unless TikTok or a horde of its users were to somehow win a lawsuit challenging the law signed this week—a lawsuit the company has already said it plans to file—all the potential outcomes lead to an app that is dramatically different.

If a US tech company were to, miraculously, buy out the app and algorithm from ByteDance, it’ll likely integrate the app into its own products and services. But I doubt we’ll ever see a “TikTok by Meta.” Meta and other tech giants have come under intense antitrust scrutiny in recent years. If any company with a big social platform were to gobble up one of its top competitors, that would set off alarms at the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission.

Microsoft has suggested that it has an interest in buying TikTok, and it might be one of the app’s only viable choices for a buyer. Microsoft’s biggest subsidiary otherwise is, well, LinkedIn—and can we even call LinkedIn a TikTok rival with a straight face?

WIRED: Have you felt that there is an unfairness or an extra scrutiny of TikTok because of the origins of the company?

Shou Zi Chew: To a large extent, yes. I think it’s one of the reasons we have a bigger trust deficit than most other companies. Maybe our trust starting line is behind other businesses, but I also think that there are very serious approaches that we’ve taken to try and earn that trust and to close that gap.

I talked about this during the congressional hearing—you know all this, this is all public information, we built a project to address those concerns. We actually spent a lot of time understanding them. There were concerns about data security, there were concerns about transparency of our code. We have not only talked about it, we have actually put this into action. We built a project where we put all data into a third-party environment, through Oracle. It’s a setup that is unprecedented, and no other company that I know of has established this. If you’re fundamentally addressing all these concerns, then over time the trust will come.

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Ask Me One Thing

Ben asks, “What do you see as the proper way to deal with TikTok? If at all?”

Here’s the thing—I have no idea. Sure, I’m not a data security guru or a First Amendment lawyer, but I don’t think those folks have the solution either.

For a long time now, lawmakers have been trying to convince us all that TikTok is the boogeyman they’ve made it out to be. We’ve heard all of the worst case scenarios: that we’re actively being spied on by the Chinese Communist Party, or that the app is brainwashing America’s youth. While this all could be true, we haven’t received a speck of evidence proving any of these theories.

Yet even if lawmakers are blowing the issue out of proportion, I can understand why they’re spooked. I spoke with Senator Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, last year, shortly after he introduced his RESTRICT Act targeting TikTok. He was scared of a repeat of 2016, when US politicians and bureaucrats were caught unawares by the Russian disinformation proliferating across Meta platforms. They don’t want to see that happen again with China and TikTok this election cycle.

Still, I don’t think these hypotheticals are enough to justify total divestment or a ban. The intelligence community should spill at least an ounce of evidence before we start looking at real solutions and whether they’re necessary at all.

You can submit questions to [email protected]. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

Sale or No Sale TikTok Will Never Be the Same

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