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Why you don’t really know what you know

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In July, Joseph Giaime, a physics professor at Louisiana State University and Caltech, gave me a tour of one of the most complex science experiments in the world. He did it via Zoom on his iPad. He showed me a control room of LIGO, a large physics collaboration based in Louisiana and Washington state. In 2015, LIGO was the first project to directly detect gravitational waves, created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. 

About 30 large monitors displayed various aspects of LIGO’s status. The system monitors tens of thousands of data channels in real time. Video screens portrayed light scattering off optics, and data charts depicted instrument vibrations from seismic activity and human movement.  

I was visiting this complicated operation, on which hundreds of specialists in discrete scientific subfields work together, to try to answer a seemingly simple question: What does it really mean to know anything? How well can we understand the world when so much of our knowledge relies on evidence and argument provided by others? 

The question matters not only to scientists. Many other fields are becoming more complex, and we have access to far more information and informed opinions than ever before. Yet at the same time, increasing political polarization and misinformation are making it hard to know whom or what to trust. Medical advances, political discourse, management practice, and a good deal of daily life all ride on how we evaluate and distribute knowledge.

We overstate enormously the individual’s ability to amass knowledge, and understate society’s role in possessing it. You may know that diesel fuel is bad for gas engines and that plants use photosynthesis, but can you define diesel or explain photosynthesis, let alone prove photosynthesis happens? Knowledge, as I came to recognize while researching this article, depends as much on trust and relationships as it does on textbooks and observations. 

Thirty-five years ago, the philosopher John Hardwig published a paper on what he called “epistemic dependence,” our reliance on others’ knowledge. The paper—well-cited in some academic circles but largely unknown elsewhere—only grows in relevance as society and knowledge become more complex. 

One common definition of knowledge is “justified true belief”—facts you can support with data and logic. As individuals, though, we rarely have the time or skills to justify our own beliefs. So what do we really mean when we say we know something? Hardwig posed a dilemma: Either much of our knowledge can be held only by a collective, not an individual, or individuals can “know” things they don’t really understand. (He chose the second option.) 

You may know that diesel fuel is bad for gas engines and that plants use photosynthesis, but can you define diesel or explain photosynthesis, let alone prove photosynthesis happens? 

This might seem like an abstract philosophical question. At the end of the day, whatever “knowing” means, it’s clear we rely on other people for it. “If the fundamental question is ‘Who has the knowledge?’—nothing rides on that. And I don’t really care,” says Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist at Brown University and coauthor of The Knowledge Illusion

“But,” he goes on, “if the question is ‘How are we justified in claiming we know things?’ and ‘Whom should we trust?’” then the matter is an urgent one. The retraction in June of two papers on covid-19 in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, after researchers put too much trust in a dishonest collaborator, is an example of what happens when epistemic dependence is mishandled. And the rise of misinformation about issues like vaccines, climate change, and covid-19 is a direct attack on epistemic dependence, without which neither science nor society as a whole can function.

To better understand epistemic dependence, I looked at an extreme case: LIGO. I wanted to understand how the physicists who work there “know” that those two black holes collided several galaxies away, and what it means for how any of us knows anything. 


As Giaime tells it, LIGO’s story begins with Albert Einstein. A century ago, Einstein theorized that gravity is a warping of the spacetime continuum, and argued that masses in motion send out ripples at the speed of light. But hopes of detecting such waves remained dim for decades, because they would be too small to measure. 

LIGO uses laser interferometry, based on a design the MIT physicist Rainer Weiss published in 1972. An interferometer, from above, resembles a capital L, with two arms at a right angle. A laser injected at the elbow of the L is split in two, reflects off a mirror at the end of each arm, and recombines in such a way that the peaks and valleys of the light waves cancel each other out. 

Epistemic dependence: The Case of LIGO
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is based on a design published by MIT physicist Rainer Weiss in 1972. A laser is injected at the elbow of the L, splitting in two and bouncing off mirrors at the end of each 4-kilometer- long arm. When they recombine, the peaks and valleys of the light waves cancel each other out. The theory was that gravity waves, if they existed, would cause the waves to desynchronize.

Weiss knew that as a gravity wave passed, it would stretch space in the direction of one arm while contracting it in the direction of the other. As a result, the distances traveled by the laser beams would change, and the waves would fail to cancel each other out. The light detector would then see a clear wave pattern. After decades of construction and more than a billion dollars, that’s what LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—has officially detected nearly a dozen times since 2015. 

The instrument’s sensitivity is hard to fathom. Each arm is four kilometers long. Over that distance, LIGO can detect changes as small as one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton. “The more physics and engineering you know,” Giaime told me, “the more crazy that sounds.”

That’s smaller than the random jiggle in the molecules of the mirror, so a number of tricks are used to cut down on noise. The light travels down the tunnel through a vacuum. The laser is powerful, so the beam contains a lot of photons, letting them average out any noise. The mirrors hang from glass threads to passively dampen any vibrations. And each mirror suspension is mounted on a rig that actively quiets vibrations using feedback from seismometers and motion sensors—like extravagant noise-canceling headphones. The system also accounts for measured interference from magnetic fields, the weather, the electrical grid, and even cosmic rays.

Still, with only one detector, you can be only so sure that any signal is coming from space. If two detectors receive the same signal at nearly the same time, confidence increases exponentially. You also can start to localize the source in the sky. That’s why there are two LIGO stations, in Louisiana and Washington, as well as other gravitational-wave observatories: Virgo, in Italy, and GEO600, in Germany, with another being built in Japan.  

As you might imagine, LIGO requires a big team with varying skills. The division of labor in science—as in industry—has grown ever finer. A 1786 book on experimental physics covered astronomy, geology, zoology, medicine, and botany. A reader could master the bulk of human knowledge in all those areas. They are each now their own fields, each of which has sprouted subfields. Encyclopedic expertise has become untenable.  

Accomplishing anything outside a narrow field requires scientists to share skills. Collaborations have grown as new technologies like the internet have made it easier to communicate. From 1990 to 2010, the average number of coauthors on a scientific paper increased from 3.2 to 5.6. A 2015 paper on the mass of the Higgs boson boasted more than 5,000 authors. Even lone authors don’t work alone—they cite work by others they often haven’t even read, according to Sloman: “We’re trusting that the abstract is actually a summary of what’s in the paper.”  

The paper announcing LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves, published in 2016, had more than 1,000 authors. Do all of them fully understand every aspect of what they wrote? “I think a lot of people have gotten their heads around most of it at a very high level,” David Reitze, a Caltech physicist and LIGO’s executive director, said of the team’s findings. But the practical matter of “How do you know that this complex detector that has hundreds of thousands of components and electronics and data channels is behaving properly and actually measuring what you’re thinking we’re measuring?” In that case, he said, “Hundreds of people”—as a team—“have to worry about that.” 

I asked Reitze if he’d have trouble explaining any aspects of the 2016 paper. “There are certainly pieces of that paper that I don’t feel like I have enough detailed knowledge to reproduce,” he said—for instance, the team’s computational work comparing their data with theoretical predictions and nailing down the black holes’ masses and velocities.  

Giaime, the head of the Livingston operation, guesses that fewer than half the coauthors of the paper ever set foot in one of the observatory sites, because their role didn’t require it. To justify the observatory’s results, he noted, a person would need to understand aspects of physics, astronomy, electronics, and mechanical engineering. “Is there anybody who knows all of those things?” he said. “We almost had a leak in our beam tube because of something called microbial induced corrosion, which is biology, for Pete’s sake. It gets to be a bit much for one mind to keep track of.”  

One episode in particular emphasizes the team’s interdependence. LIGO detected no gravitational waves in its first eight years of operation, and from 2010 to 2015 it shut down for upgrades. Just two days after being rebooted, it received a signal that was “so beautiful that either it had to be a wonderful gift or it was suspicious,” says Peter Saulson, a physicist at Syracuse University, who led the LIGO Scientific Collaboration—the international team of scientists who use LIGO and GEO600 for research—from 2003 to 2007. Could someone have injected a fake signal? After an investigation, they concluded that no one person understood the whole system well enough to pull it off. A believable hack would have required a small army of malcontents. Imagining “such a team of evil geniuses,” Saulson says, “became laughable.” So, everyone conceded, the signal must be real—two black holes colliding. “In the end,” he says, “it was a sociological argument.”  

We often overestimate our ability to explain things. It’s called the illusion of explanatory depth. In one set of studies, people rated how well they understood devices and natural phenomena, like zippers and rainbows. Then they tried to explain them. Ratings dropped precipitously once people had confronted their own ignorance. (For an amusing demonstration, ask someone to draw a bicycle. Results often don’t resemble reality.)  

I asked Reitze if he himself had fallen prey to the illusion. He noted that LIGO relies on thousands of sensors and
hundreds of interacting feedback loops to account for environmental noise. He thought he understood them pretty well—until he prepared to explain them in a talk. A cram session on dynamical control theory—the mathematics of managing systems that change—ensued.  

The illusion may draw on what Sloman, the cognitive scientist, calls “contagious understanding.” In one set of studies he conducted, people read about a made-up natural phenomenon, like glowing rocks. Some were told the phenomenon was well understood by experts, some were told it was mysterious, and some were told it was understood but classified. Then they rated their own understanding. Those in the first group gave higher ratings than the others, as if just the fact that it was possible for them to understand meant they already did.  

People naturally tuck away more facts on a topic when they believe that their partner was not an expert on it. They wordlessly divide and conquer, each acting as the other’s external memory.  

Treating others’ knowledge as your own isn’t as silly as it sounds. In 1987, the psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote about an aspect of collective cognition he called transactive memory, which basically means we all know stuff and also know who else knows other stuff. In one study, couples were tasked with remembering a set of facts, like “The Kaypro II is a personal computer.” He found that people naturally tucked away more facts on a topic when they believed that their partner was not an expert on it. They wordlessly divided and conquered, each acting as the other’s external memory.  

Other researchers studying transactive memory asked groups of three to assemble a radio. Some trios had trained as a team to complete the task, while others comprised members who had trained individually. The trios who had trained as a team demonstrated greater transactive memory, including more specialization, coordination, and trust. In turn, they made fewer than half as many errors during assembly. 

Each individual in those trios may not have known how to assemble a radio as well as those who had trained as individuals. But as a group—humans’ normal mode of operation—their epistemic dependence bred success.  


Several lessons follow from seeing your own knowledge as contingent on others’. Perhaps the simplest is to realize that you almost certainly understand less about just about any subject than you think. So ask more questions, even dumb ones.

Acknowledging your epistemic dependence might even make debate more productive. In a 2013 paper, Sloman studied the role the illusion of explanatory depth plays in political polarization. Americans rated their understanding of, and support for, policies related to health care, taxation, and other hot-button issues. Then they tried to explain the policies. The more the exercise reduced their own sense of understanding, the less extreme their positions became. You can’t take a firm stand on shaky ground. No one understands Obamacare, Sloman said—not even Obama: “It’s too long. It’s too complicated. They just summarize it with a couple of slogans that miss 99.9% of it.” 

Another lesson comes from Hardwig’s original paper on epistemic dependence. The seemingly obvious notion that rationality requires thinking for oneself, he wrote, is “a romantic ideal which is thoroughly unrealistic.” If we followed that ideal, he wrote, we would hold only relatively crude and uninformed beliefs that we had arrived at on our own. Instead of thinking for yourself, he suggested, try trusting experts—even more than you might do already.  

I asked Sloman (an expert) if that was a good idea. “Yeah!” he said. “Florida. Do I have to say anything else?” (Florida’s covid-19 cases were skyrocketing at the time as people ignored experts’ advice on protective measures.) In reality, of course, rationality requires a balance between taking advice and thinking for yourself. Without at least scratching the surface of an issue, you’ll fall for anything. 

To test the veracity of a fact, check whether experts agree on it. Gabriela González, a Louisiana State physicist and another former head of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said that as a diabetic, “I would never try to get the data of a clinical trial and analyze it myself.” She looks for medical consensus in news stories about potential treatments.  

You can also have an independent expert review another expert’s claims. In science, this is the process of peer review. In daily life, it’s checking with your uncle who knows about cars, cooking, or whatever. Inside LIGO, committees review each stage of an experiment. They might ask independent experts to dig into code others have written, or just ask probing questions. Researchers analyzing the combined data use multiple algorithms in parallel, each written by different people. They also run frequent tests of the hardware and software.  

Another audit, which we instinctively use in everyday life, is to see how people respond to questions about their expertise. “Dialectical superiority” is a cue that Alvin Goldman, a philosopher at Rutgers University, suggested using in a 2001 paper titled “Experts: Which ones should you trust?” He wrote that in a debate between two experts, the one who displays “comparative quickness and smoothness,” and has rebuttals at the ready, could be considered the one with thorough understanding of the issue. However, he points out the weakness of this cue. (Having all the answers is sometimes a bad sign, Sloman said: “I think an important cue is: Do they express sufficient humility? Do they admit what they don’t know?”)  

Goldman’s paper offered four more cues as to whether an expert’s opinion is reliable. They are the approval of other experts; credentials or reputation; evidence about biases or conflicting interests; and track records. He acknowledged problems with all four but suggested that track records were most helpful. If these seem like ad hominem appraisals rather than evidence-based ones, Sloman says, that’s not a bad thing: “It strikes me as a lot easier to evaluate someone’s credibility than to acquire all the knowledge that that individual has. It’s orders of magnitude easier.” As for formal credentials, he said, “You can call me an elitist if you want, but I think having a degree from a reputable institution is a sign.” 

Several lessons follow from seeing your own knowledge as contingent on the knowledge of others. The simplest is that you almost certainly understand less about almost any subject than you think.

Ultimately, knowledge is about both evidence and trust. Harry Collins, a sociologist at Cardiff University who has been writing about the gravitational wave community for decades, emphasizes how face-to-face interactions shape what we believe to be true. He recalls a Russian scientist who’d visited Glasgow to work with a team that couldn’t reproduce his results. Even though they didn’t succeed during his visit, they no longer doubted him, because of the way he worked in the lab. “For instance, he’d never go out for lunch,” Collins said. “He insisted on having a sandwich—when he’d come all the way from Russia and could be enjoying delicious Glaswegian curry.” They believed that no one so dedicated would be making up his findings, so they kept trying, and eventually they achieved similar results. 

Epistemic dependence also highlights the importance of sharing your work in progress. Before interferometers, when physicists built gravitational wave detectors using vibrating aluminum bars, they protected their raw data and shared only lists of detections they thought they had made. Eventually they began to trust each other and work together more closely. If the physicists at LIGO and other detectors had stuck to the old ways, Giaime said, “we could have blown the discovery of the century”—a 2017 neutron star collision that, unlike the 2015 black hole collision, was also studied by radio, gamma-ray, x-ray, and visible-light telescopes. That was made possible only because LIGO and Virgo shared data, allowing them to quickly pinpoint where the collision took place. Without that cooperation, Giaime said, “we wouldn’t have known the sky position of the pair of neutron stars accurately enough to point telescopes at it soon enough.”  

Of course, epistemic dependence also has its downsides. Consider the costs of turnover within organizations. If someone who’s a key part of your project leaves, you lose pieces of collective knowledge and capability that you can’t make up on your own.  

As scientific collaboration has changed, so have scientific awards. “The Nobel Prize is an anachronism from an earlier age when things were done by an individual or a small number of people,” says Weiss, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for his work on gravitational waves. “I felt awkward on receiving it and was only able to justify it by saying I was a symbol for all of us.”  

In Giaime’s office at the end of the tour, he pointed to a plaque on his wall. In 2016, the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. A million dollars went to Weiss, Thorne, and another founder, Ronald Drever, and $2 million was split equally among a thousand other people. “It’s a memento to a kind of a new era of science,” Giaime said, “where large groups can get prizes together.”  

The awards are catching up to how science operates today. Researchers have always depended on each other to fill in gaps in knowledge, but specialization and collaboration have grown more extreme, integrating global networks of domain experts. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration involves hundreds of people, many of whom have never met. They use tools and knowledge contributed by thousands of others, who in turn rely on the tools and knowledge of millions of others. Such organization doesn’t happen by chance: it requires sophisticated technical and social systems, working hand in hand. Trust feeds evidence feeds trust, and so on. The same holds true for society at large. If we undermine our self-reinforcing systems of evidence and trust, our ability to know anything and do anything will break down. 

And perhaps there’s a broader, even philosophical, lesson: You know much less than you think you do, and also much more. Knowledge can’t be divided at the seams between people. Maybe you can’t define photosynthesis, but you’re an integral part of an epistemic ecosystem that can not only define it but examine it at the smallest scales, and manipulate it for the benefit of all. In the end, what do you know? You know what we know.

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GDPR enforcement must level up to catch big tech, report warns

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A new report by European consumer protection umbrella group Beuc, reflecting on the barriers to effective cross-border enforcement of the EU’s flagship data protection framework, makes awkward reading for the regional lawmakers and regulators as they seek to shape the next decades of digital oversight across the bloc.

Beuc’s members filed a series of complaints against Google’s use of location data in November 2018 — but some two years on from raising privacy concerns there’s been no resolution of the complaints.

The tech giant continues to make billions in ad revenue, including by processing and monetize Internet users’ location data. Its lead data protection supervisor, under GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism for dealing with cross-border complaints, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), did finally open an investigation in February this year.

But it could still be years before Google faces any regulatory action in Europe related to its location tracking.

This is because Ireland’s DPC has yet to issue any cross-border GDPR decisions, some 2.5 years after the regulation started being applied. (Although, as we reported recently, a case related to a Twitter data breach is inching towards a result in the coming days.)

By contrast, France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, was able to complete a GDPR investigation into the transparency of Google’s data processing in much quicker order last year.

This summer French courts also confirmed the $57M fine it issued, slapping down Google’s appeal.

But the case predated Google coming under the jurisdiction of the DPC. And Ireland’s data regulator has to deal with a disproportionate number of multinational tech companies, given how many have established their EU base in the country.

The DPC has a major backlog of cross-border cases, with more than 20 GDPR probes involving a number of tech companies including Apple, Facebook/WhatsApp and LinkedIn. (Google has also been under investigation in Ireland over its adtech since 2019.)

This week the EU’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, said regional lawmakers are well aware of enforcement “bottlenecks” in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

He suggested the Commission has learned lessons from this friction — claiming it will ensure similar concerns don’t affect the future working of a regulatory proposal related to data reuse that he was out speaking in public to introduce.

The Commission wants to create standard conditions for rights-respecting reuse of industrial data across the EU, via a new Data Governance Act (DGA), which proposes similar oversight mechanisms as are involved in the EU’s oversight of personal data — including national agencies monitoring compliance and a centralized EU steering body (which they’re planning to call the European Data Innovation Board as a mirror entity to the European Data Protection Board).

The Commission’s ambitious agenda for updating and expanding the EU’s digital rules framework, means criticism of GDPR risks taking the shine off the DGA before the ink has dried on the proposal document — putting pressure on lawmakers to find creative ways to unblock GDPR’s enforcement “bottleneck”. (Creative because national agencies are responsibility for day to day oversight, and Member States are responsible for resourcing DPAs.) 

In an initial GDPR review this summer, the Commission praised the regulation as a “modern and horizontal piece of legislation” and a “global reference point” — claiming it’s served as a point of inspiration for California’s CCPA and other emerging digital privacy frameworks around the world.

But they also conceded GDPR enforcement is lacking.

The best answer to this concern “will be a decision from the Irish data protection authority about important cases”, the EU’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, said in June.

Five months later European citizens are still waiting.

Beuc’s report — which it’s called The long and winding road: Two years of the GDPR: A cross-border data protection case from a consumer perspective — details the procedural obstacles its member organizations have faced in seeking to obtain a decision related to the original complaints, which were filed with a variety of DPAs around the EU.

This includes concerns of the Irish DPC making unnecessary “information and admissibility checks”; as well as rejecting complaints brought by an interested organization on the grounds they lack a mandate under Irish law, because it does not allow for third party redress (yet the Dutch consumer organization had filed the complaint under Dutch law which does…).

The report also queries why the DPC chose to open an own volition enquiry into Google’s location data activities (rather than a complaint-led enquiry) — which Beuc says risks a further delay to reaching a decision on the complaints themselves.

It further points out that the DPC’s probe of Google only looks at activity since February 2020 not November 2018 when the complaints were made — meaning there’s a missing chunk of Google’s location data processing that’s not even being investigated yet.

It notes that three of its member organizations involved in the Google complaints had considered applying for a judicial review of the DPC’s decision (NB: others have resorted to that route) — but they decided not to proceed in part because of the significant legal costs it would have entailed.

The report also points out the inherent imbalance of GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism shifting the administration of complaints to the location of companies under investigation — arguing they therefore benefit from “easier access to justice” (vs the ordinary consumer faced with undertaking legal proceedings in a different country and (likely) language).

“If the lead authority is in a country with tradition in ‘common law’, like Ireland, things can become even more complex and costly,” Beuc’s report further notes.

Another issue it raises is the overarching one of rights complaints having to fight what it dubs ‘a moving target’ — given well-resourced tech companies can leverage regulatory delays to (superficially) tweak practices, greasing continued abuse with misleading PR campaigns. (Something Beuc accuses Google of doing.)

DPAs must “adapt their enforcement approach to intervene more rapidly and directly”, it concludes.

“Over two years have passed since the GDPR became applicable, we have now reached a turning point. The GDPR must finally show its strength and become a catalyst for urgently needed changes in business practices,” Beuc goes on in a summary of its recommendations. “Our members experience and that of other civil society organisations, reveals a series of obstacles that significantly hamper the effective application of the GDPR and the correct functioning of its enforcement system.

BEUC recommends to the relevant EU and national authorities to make a comprehensive and joint effort to ensure the swift enforcement of the rules and improve the position of data subjects and their representing organisations, particularly in the framework of cross-border enforcement cases.”

We reached out to the Commission and the Irish DPC with questions about the report. But at the time of writing neither had responded. We’ve also asked Google for comment.

Beuc earlier sent a list of eight recommendations for “efficient” GDPR enforcement to the Commission in May.

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Equity Dive: Edtech’s 2020 wakeup call

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week, we’re doing a first-ever for the show and taking a deep dive into one specific sector: Edtech.

Natasha Mascarenhas has covered education technology since Stanford first closed down classes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the wake of the historic shuttering of much of the United States’ traditional institutions of education, the sector has formed new unicorns, attracted record-breaking venture capital totals, and most of all, enjoyed time in a long-overdue spotlight.

For this Equity Dive, we zero into one part of that conversation: Edtech’s impact on higher education. We brought together Udacity co-founder and Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun, Eschaton founder and college drop-out Ian Dilick, and Cowboy Ventures investor Jomayra Herrera to answer our biggest questions.

Here’s what we got into:

  • How the state of remote school is leading to gap years among students
  • A framework for how to think of higher education’s main three products (including which is most defensible over time)
  • What learnings we can take from this COVID-19 experiment on remote schooling to apply to the future
  • Why ed-tech is flocking to the notion of life-long learning
  • And the reality of who self-paced learning serves — and who it leaves out

And much, much more. If you celebrate, thank you for spending part of your Thanksgiving with the Equity crew. We’re so thankful to have this platform and audience, and it means a ton that y’all tune in each week.

Finally, if you liked this format and want to see more, feel free to tweet us your thoughts or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Talk soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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TikTok’s epic rise and stumble

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TikTok’s rise in the West is unprecedented for any Chinese tech company, and so is the amount of attention it has attracted from politicians worldwide. Below is a timeline of how TikTok grew from what some considered another “copycat” short video app to global dominance and eventually became a target of the U.S. government.

2012-2017: The emergence of TikTok

These years were a period of fast growth for ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company behind TikTok. Originally launched in China as Douyin, the video-sharing app quickly was wildly successful in its domestic market before setting its sights on the rest of the world. 

2012 

Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old serial engineer, establishes ByteDance in Beijing.

2014

Chinese product designer Alex Zhu launches Musical.ly.

2016

ByteDance launches Douyin, which is regarded by many as a Musical.ly clone. It launches Douyin’s overseas version TikTok later that year.

2017-2019: TikTok takes off in the United States

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and and launches in the U.S., where it quickly becomes popular, the first social media app from a Chinese tech company to achieve that level of success there. But at the same time, its ownership leads to questions about national security and censorship, against the backdrop of the U.S.-China tariff wars and increased scrutiny of Chinese tech companies (including Huawei and ZTE) under the Trump administration.

2017

November

ByteDance buys Musical.ly for $800 million to $1 billion. (link)

2018

August

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and becomes available in the U.S. (link)

October

TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in downloads. (link)

November

Facebook launches TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

2019

February

TikTok reaches one billion installs on the App Store and Google Play. (link)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fines TikTok $5.7 million over violation of children privacy law. (link)

May

TikTok tops the App Store for the fifth quarter in a row. (link)

September

TikTok is found censoring topics considered sensitive by the Beijing government. (link)

October

TikTok bans political ads (link) but does not appear to take action on hashtags related to American politics. (link)

TikTok taps corporate law firm K&L Gates for advice on content moderation in the U.S. (link)

U.S. lawmakers ask intelligence chief Joseph Maguire to investigate if TikTok poses a threat to national security. (link)

TikTok says it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and would not do so if asked. (link)

November

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opens a national security probe into TikTok. (link)

Instagram launches TikTok rival Reels. (link)

TikTok apologizes for removing a viral video about abuses against Uighurs. (link)

December

The U.S. Navy reportedly bans TikTok. (link)

The first half of 2020: Growth amid government scrutiny

The app is now a mainstay of online culture in America, especially among Generation Z, and its user base has grown even wider as people seek diversions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But TikTok faces an escalating series of government actions, creating confusion about its future in America. 

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing on Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

2020

January

Revived Dubsmash grows into TikTok’s imminent rival. (link)

March

TikTok lets outside experts examine its moderation practices at its “transparency center.” (link)

Senators introduce a bill to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. (link)

TikTok brings in outside experts to craft content policies. (link)

April

TikTok introduces parental controls. (link)

TikTok tops two billion downloads. (link)

June

TikTok discloses how its content recommendation system works. (link)

YouTube launches TikTok rival. (link)

July

Facebook shuts down TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is looking to ban TikTok. (link)

TikTok announced a $200 million fund for U.S. creators. (link)

Trump told reporters he will use executive power to ban TikTok. (link)

The second half of 2020: TikTok versus the U.S. government

After weeks of speculation, Trump signs an executive order in August against ByteDance. ByteDance begins seeking American buyers for TikTok, but the company also fights the executive order in court. A group of TikTok creators also file a lawsuit challenging the order. The last few months of 2020 become a relentless, and often confusing, flurry of events and new developments for TikTok observers, with no end in sight. 

August

Reports say ByteDance agrees to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations and Microsoft will take over. (link)

Trump signals opposition to the ByteDance-Microsoft deal. (link)

Microsoft announces discussions about the TikTok purchase will complete no later than September 15. (link)

Trump shifts tone and says he expects a cut from the TikTok sale. (link)

TikTok broadens fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election. (link)

August 7: In the most significant escalation of tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok, Trump signs an executive order banning “transactions” with ByteDance in 45 days, or on September 20. (link). TikTok says the order was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.” (link)

August 9: TikTok reportedly plans to challenge the Trump administration ban. (link)

Oracle is also reportedly bidding for the TikTok sale. (link)

August 24: TikTok and ByteDance file their first lawsuit in federal court against the executive order, naming President Trump, Secretary of State Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit seeks to prevent the government from banning TikTok. Filed in U.S. District Court Central District of California (case number 2:20-cv-7672), it claims Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional.  (link)

TikTok reaches 100 million users in the U.S. (link)

August 27: TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days. (link)

Kevin Mayer (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Walmart says it has expressed interest in teaming up with Microsoft to bid for TikTok. (link)

August 28: China’s revised export laws could block TikTok’s divestment. (link)

September

China says it would rather see TikTok shuttered than sold to an American firm. (link)

September 13: Oracle confirms it is part of a proposal submitted by ByteDance to the Treasury Department in which Oracle will serve as the “trusted technology provider.” (link)

September 18: The Commerce Department publishes regulations against TikTok that will take effect in two phases. The app will no longer be distributed in U.S. app stores as of September 20, but it gets an extension on how it operates until November 12. After that, however, it will no longer be able to use internet hosting services in the U.S., rendering it inaccessible.  (link)

On the same day as the Commerce Department’s announcement, two separate lawsuits are filed against Trump’s executive order against TikTok. One is filed by ByteDance, while the other is by three TikTok creators.

The one filed by TikTok and ByteDance is in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (case number 20-cv-02658), naming President Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department as defendants. It is very similar to the suit ByteDance previously filed in California. TikTok and ByteDance’s lawyers argue that Trump’s executive order violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the right to free speech, and due process and takings clauses.

The other lawsuit, filed by TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers, also names the president, Ross and the Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (case number 2:20-cv-04597), argues that Trump’s executive order “violates the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the President’s statutory authority.”

September 19: One day before the September 20 deadline that would have forced Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, the Commerce Department extends it by a week to September 27. This is reportedly to give ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart time to finalize their deal.

On the same day, Marland, Rinab and Chambers, the three TikTok creators, file their first motion for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order. They argue that the executive order violates freedom of speech and deprives them of “protected liberty and property interests without due process,” because if a ban goes into effect, it would prevent them from making income from TikTok-related activities, like promotional and branding work.

September 20: After filing the D.C. District Court lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, TikTok and ByteDance formally withdraw their similar pending suit in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California.

September 21: ByteDance and Oracle confirm the deal but send conflicting statements over TikTok’s new ownership. TikTok is valued at an estimated $60 billion. (link)

September 22: China’s state newspaper says China won’t approve the TikTok sale, labeling it “extortion.” (link)

September 23: TikTok and ByteDance ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant a preliminary injunction against the executive order, arguing that the September 27 ban removing TikTok from app stores will “inflict direct, immediate, and irreparable harm on Plaintiffs during the pendency of this case.” (link)

September 26: U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone denies Marland, Rinab and Chambers’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the executive order, writing that the three did not demonstrate “they will suffer immediate, irreparable harm if users and prospective users cannot download or update” TikTok after September 27, since they will still be able to use the app.

September 27: Just hours before the TikTok ban was set to go into effect, U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols grants ByteDance’s request for a preliminary injunction while the court considers whether the app poses a risk to national security. (link)

September 29: TikTok launches a U.S. election guide in the app. (link)

October

comedian Sarah Cooper's page is displayed on the TikTok app

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 07: In this photo illustration, comedian Sarah Cooper’s page is displayed on the TikTok app. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Snapchat launches a TikTok rival. (link)

TikTok says it’s enforcing actions against hate speech. (link)

TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce (link)

October 13: After failing to win their first request for a preliminary injunction, TikTok creators Marland, Rinab and Chambers file a second one. This time, their request focuses on the Commerce Department’s November 12 deadline, which they say will make it impossible for users to access or post content on TikTok if it goes into effect.

October 30: U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone grants TikTok creators Marland, Chambers and Rinab’s second request for a preliminary injunction against the TikTok ban. (link)

November

November 7: After five days of waiting for vote counts, Joe Biden is declared the president-elect by CNN, followed by the AP, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News. With Biden set to be sworn in as president on January 20, the future of Trump’s executive order against TikTok becomes even more uncertain.

November 10: ByteDance asks the federal appeal court to vacate the U.S. government’s divestiture order that would force it to sell the app’s American operations by November 12. Filed as part of the lawsuit in D.C. District Court, ByteDance said it asked the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States for an extension, but hadn’t been granted one yet. (link)

November 12: This is the day that the Commerce Department’s ban on transactions with ByteDance, including providing internet hosting services to TikTok (which would stop the app from being able to operate in the U.S.), was set to go into effect. But instead the case becomes more convoluted as the U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future.

The Commerce Department says it will abide by the preliminary injunction granted on October 30 by Judge Beetlestone, pending further legal developments. But, around the same time, the Justice Department files an appeal against Beetlestone’s ruling. Then Judge Nichols sets new deadlines (December 14 and 28) in the D.C. District Court lawsuit (the one filed by ByteDance against the Trump administration) for both sides to file motions and other new documents in the case. (link)

November 25: The Trump administration grants ByteDance a seven-day extension of the divestiture order. The deadline for ByteDance to finalize a sale of TikTok is now December 4.

This timeline will be updated as developments occur.

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