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As TikTok Grows In Popularity, It's Also Setting Off Alarms In Silicon Valley


Now time for All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: And when it comes to tech, 2019 may go down in history as the year of TikTok. In 2019, the app has spawned memes, dance contests, even minted hit songs.


BLANCO BROWN: (Singing) Going to do the two step then cowboy boogie. Grab your sweetheart and spin out with them.


MXMTOON: (Singing) I'm sitting here, crying in my prom dress. I'd be the prom queen if crying was a contest.


LIL NAS X: (Singing) Riding on a horse, you can whip your Porsche.

CORNISH: It also set off alarm bells in Washington and Silicon Valley. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us now to talk about how the video sharing app went from teen fad to cultural juggernaut to possible national security threat.

Shannon, welcome back.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: How big is TikTok at this point? How many users?

BOND: Well, it's kind of crazy. It's not even a year and a half old, and it's been downloaded 1.5 billion times. So that means something like 1 in 5 people around the world have put this app on their phones. And teenagers and 20-somethings in particular have embraced it. I spoke with a TikToker - that's what they're called. Her name is Alexia Del Valle.

ALEXIA DEL VALLE: It's, like, really exciting to know that people are enjoying something that I thought of, you know, yesterday, and I just readily made a video about.

BOND: Del Valle is a 21-year-old student. She goes to college in Miami. And she makes these videos where she plays different characters. This summer, she made a parody of the Netflix show "Stranger Things." It's called "If Latina Moms Were In Stranger Things." Del Valle's Puerto Rican, and she drew on that for the video.


DEL VALLE: Do you think you're going to walk inside my house with your feet like that? Let me tell you something, Mr. Demogorgon. I'm going to need you to go wash those little feet of yours because you are not going to come inside my house all dirty. I'm not doing that.

BOND: That video blew up on TikTok, and Del Valle now has more than 330,000 followers. She says it's really changed her life. She has fans now. She's actually been stopped in the street by people asking for pictures.

CORNISH: So what you're describing are, like, skits. I know it's a big place for dance routines, and some pop songs have even been launched there. It all seems innocuous. Why is Congress raising the alarm about TikTok?

BOND: Well, what's gotten the attention of lawmakers is who owns TikTok. And that's a Chinese company called ByteDance. Actually, the head of TikTok was supposed to come meet with lawmakers in Washington to talk about some of these concerns this week. He's now rescheduled those meetings for after the holidays. But when he does come, he's probably going to get questions about whether, because of its Chinese ownership, TikTok is censoring content that might upset the Chinese government.

Just last month, the app banned an American user who made a video criticizing China's treatment of Uighur Muslims. TikTok did apologize and reinstated the video soon after. But there are worries about how any Chinese-owned company handles the data of American users because of censorship and surveillance by the Chinese government.

Here's Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He was talking about TikTok at a hearing in November.


JOSH HAWLEY: A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they're watching and what they share with each other.

BOND: TikTok says it stores all American user data in the U.S. and Singapore, not in China. And I'm not sure that many TikTok users in the U.S. are particularly worried about this yet, but political pressure on the company is only going to rise. There's reportedly a national security review of ByteDance's ownership of TikTok.

CORNISH: Are Silicon Valley leaders worried about the rise of TikTok? What are you hearing from companies there?

BOND: Yeah, the most alarm out here is coming from Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has really seized on TikTok as a foil. So he touts Facebook as an American company with American values versus TikTok as a company that reflects China's interests. Here's what he said about that in October.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these same protests are censored, even here in the U.S. Is that the Internet that we want?

BOND: But, you know, the interesting thing, Audie, is that Facebook is actually trying to copy TikTok. It's testing out these tools that allow people to make TikTok-like videos. It's hoping to capture its popularity, especially with young people. But the bigger picture, I think, here is that there've been a lot of successful Chinese social media companies, but they've all been in China. TikTok's the first Chinese social app that has broken out globally, and that scares Facebook. And it scares the U.S. government.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shannon Bond.

Shannon, thank you.

BOND: Thanks for having me.


Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.