Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With Its Evil Twin, TikTok

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The Plain View

To learn the obsession of an industry, attend an event where its leaders are gabbing for three days.

That old saying, which I just made up, was borne out this week at the Code Conference, a yearly event (pandemic permitting) hosted by the ubiquitous tech journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher. She cofounded the conference with Walt Mossberg, the celebrated product reviewer. At the event’s 2003 premiere—when the gathering was called D: All Things Digital—the first guest was Steve Jobs, whose presence imbued instant credibility. The Apple CEO was a frequent speaker at the conference thereafter, including a historic joint interview with his rival Bill Gates. Swisher had earlier made it clear that this was her last Code Conference (Mossberg retired several years ago), and to mark the milestone, she organized a panel of those who knew Jobs best: his designer Jony Ive, his successor Tim Cook, and his wife Laurene Powell Jobs. After bittersweet reminisces, Powell Jobs announced that she had started an archive to preserve her husband’s legacy.

Ten years ago, in the first Code since Jobs’ death, I wrote that his ghost haunted the conference, as session after session made posthumous reference to the recently departed CEO. In 2022, however, a starkly different subject kept popping up at the Los Angeles confab—TikTok, the hugely successful app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The platform, which delivers short user-generated videos magically tailored to what the user likes, has drawn more than a billion addicted fans, dominated culture, and established a giant business. The invocations of TikTok were not that of a haunting, but of a looming terror. Each mention should have been accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie Jaws, as its presence at the conference was unseen but gut-wrenchingly menacing, like the shark in the first half of the Spielberg classic. (A TikTok executive had been originally scheduled to appear but got sick and couldn’t attend.)

The drumbeat began when tech gadfly Scott Galloway, in a presentation boosting his upcoming book, called out the made-in-China app for its addictive qualities and its alleged financing from the Chinese government—and called for its ban in the US. Minutes later, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner, almost quivering with rage, amplified Galloway’s call. “TikTok should be banned in every democracy,” he said of the company he defined as his biggest competitor. “It is of course a tool of espionage.” He was referring to the Chinese government’s fondness for gathering data on apps that host servers in its own country. Though TikTok claims that this doesn’t happen with US users, leaked audio from internal meetings indicates otherwise.

Not long after Dopfner’s session, Senator Amy Klobuchar made an appearance and indicated that she was on the case. “There could well be legislation on TikTok,” she said during an interview with Swisher.

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