Commentary: The extraordinary rise of TikTok signals a more multipolar internet


THE SINICIZATION OF THE GLOBAL INTERNET?

What about the possible influence of the Chinese government? TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, a private company last valued at US$180 billion in December 2020, has closed its international operations by creating a separate corporate structure based in Singapore. TikTok says all its international user data is stored in the US and Singapore and – from 2023 – in Ireland as well. The company insists that no streams of personal data are transmitted to the Chinese government, nor would it give Beijing access to such data, even upon request.

In his well-researched book, TikTok Boom, Chris Stokel-Walker investigated these claims. He found no evidence of systematic leakage of personal data. But engineers in China have had access to certain data to test algorithms or spot bot attacks, for example.

“TikTok is not a social media sleeper cell waiting to be activated remotely on the phones of millions of Westerners,” he concluded. “The reality here is that there is no big scam, but rather a little white lie.”

Even if this conclusion is correct, it might not help. Some US senators are still attacking TikTok as an instrument of Chinese soft power. There is a risk that the company could still suffer the same fate as Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer blacklisted by the United States.

But if TikTok can avoid becoming a geopolitical punching bag, it could symbolize a moment in the evolution of cyberspace: the sinicization of the global internet, as tech analyst Ben Thompson calls it.

In this digital world, more centralized control of Chinese-style content via recommendation algorithms becomes a feature, not a bug. For several decades, the United States dominated consumer Internet norms, values, and practices. The rise of TikTok portends a more contested future.

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