Platform Ownership

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Platform Ownership

The platforms that shaped the last decade came out of Silicon Valley; that won’t necessarily be true in the future.

Key Insight

The platforms that shaped the last decade came out of Silicon Valley; that won’t necessarily be true in the future. Popular apps are now emerging from countries like China and Russia, where censorship is commonplace. As a result, we must grapple with the values and features that define social networking.

Why it Matters

A leaked version of TikTok’s moderation policy suggests the platform takes steps to reduce the reach of political posts, even if the original video isn’t deleted outright. How will we respond to platforms with a very different understanding of free speech than our own?

Examples

A makeup tutorial went viral on TikTok in November 2019—not noteworthy on its own, except that the video was actually a plea for viewers to inform themselves about China’s treatment of Uighurs. The video was designed to entice the creator’s audience to keep watching past the first few seconds while also evading notice by TikTok’s moderators, who could have removed or curtailed the reach of the video. The creator claims she was suspended from the platform for a month, but TikTok said the video was accidentally removed and the suspension was due to a video posted to a different account.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a government entity that reviews transactions involving foreign companies, launched an investigation into TikTok and its parent company ByteDance after it acquired the app Musical.ly for $1 billion. That review will draw additional scrutiny of TikTok, specifically around how it treats American user data and whether the app is being used to further Chinese political interests.

Earlier in the year, selfies from FaceApp were all over social media. The Russian-based app uses neural networks to make users look older or younger. To use the photo filters, however, users had to agree to the privacy policy, which gave FaceApp permission to upload the images to its cloud servers—and potentially to transfer to the data to any location where the company operates. The company’s founder said no data was transferred to Russia, and the firm added an option to let users delete their data. But the uproar that preceded those announcements foreshadowed a fear that a seemingly silly game could become a tool for capturing data to be used as fodder in a geopolitical conflict.

What’s Next

App designers encode their values and political attitudes into every choice they make. As a result, we will increasingly grapple with technology that challenges deeply held assumptions about the world. Should we download apps that transfer data into regions with different privacy laws? Should we post to platforms that actively censor controversial ideas? When should we act on suspicion about a tech company’s practices—only when we can prove wrongdoing completely? Or do we do it preemptively?

The Impact

The growth of TikTok offers an opportunity to consider the implications of platforms built without American notions of free speech at their core.

Watchlist

ByteDance, Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, FaceApp, People’s Republic of China, TikTok, social media tools and apps everywhere.