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TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew is pictured on the day he will testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled “TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms,” as lawmakers scrutinize the Chinese-owned video-sharing app, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 23, 2023. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

For several years now, ByteDance’s TikTok has been the focus of lawmakers and intelligence officials who fear it could be used to spy on Americans. Those concerns took center stage during a five-hour grilling of TikTok’s CEO back in March.

But while TikTok has been the one in the spotlight, other Chinese apps that present similar issues are also experiencing massive popularity in the U.S.

Concerns about ByteDance stem in large part from a national security law that gives the Chinese government power to access broad swaths of business information if it claims to be for a national security purpose. U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers fear that the Chinese government could effectively access any information that China-based app companies have collected from American users, from email addresses to user interests to driver’s licenses.

But that doesn’t seem to have swayed many consumers, as several China-based apps are still booming in the U.S.

For example, the shopping app Temu, owned by China-based PDD Holdings, has the number two spot on the Apple App Store among free apps as of late May. It also held the number 12 spot among digital retailers in the 2022 holiday season for unique visitors to its site, topping stores like Kohl’s, Wayfair and Nordstrom, according to Insider Intelligence, which also credits visibility on TikTok for its rise.

Meanwhile, ByteDance-owned apps CapCut and TikTok hold the fourth and fifth spots on the App Store rankings. Chinese fast fashion brand Shein holds fourteenth.

And between late March and early April, after the TikTok CEO hearing before Congress, ByteDance’s Lemon8, saw nearly 1 million downloads in the U.S., Insider Intelligence reported based on data from Apptopia. It’s an app with similarities to Pinterest and Meta’s Instagram.

These apps share some of the features that have worried the U.S. government about TikTok, including about whether some of these firms adequately protect U.S. user data when operating out of China (TikTok has stressed that U.S. user information is only stored on servers outside of China). Like TikTok, these apps collect user information, can analyze trends in their interests and use algorithms to target consumers with products or information that is likely to keep them engaged with the service.

But experts on China and social media say there are important differences between these apps and TikTok which might explain the relative lack of attention on them. Among the most important of those features is the scale of their presence in the U.S.

TikTok vs. other Chinese apps

In just 17 days after launch, Temu surpassed Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Shein on the Apple App Store in the U.S., according to Apptopia data shared with CNBC.

Stefani Reynolds | Afp | Getty Images

Even as they grow, the U.S. userbase of many popular Chinese apps is still dwarfed by TikTok’s massive U.S. audience of 150 million monthly active users.

TikTok sister app Lemon8, for instance, has an estimated 1.8 million monthly active users in the U.S., according to Apptopia.

While TikTok has had 415 million downloads in the U.S. since its launch here, CapCut has had 99 million, Temu 67 million and Lemon8 1.2 million, according to Apptopia.

Only Shein surpasses TikTok in downloads among this group of apps, though it launched far earlier in the U.S. in 2014. Shein’s app has 855 million downloads in the U.S. since its debut, though Apptopia estimates it has about 22 million monthly active users.

“An app with a thousand, or even a million users in the U.S. does not present the same widespread cybersecurity threat that an app with 100 million users has,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Gorman said as the U.S. considers the threat posed by TikTok, it will also need to develop a framework for how to evaluate the relative risk of Chinese apps. The scale should be one factor, she said, and the type of app, including its ability to spread propaganda, should be another.

“The ability for a Chinese technology platform to represent critical information infrastructure in a democracy has to be part of that calculus when assessing risk,” Gorman said. “That’s where I think the analogies with power grids or energy infrastructure are applicable. We we would not allow the authoritarian regime to build significant components of our energy infrastructure and rely on an authoritarian regime for that.”

That means that an app like ByteDance’s CapCut may present a lower risk, both because of its smaller user base and because it’s meant to edit videos, rather than distribute them.

“We’re really at the beginning stages of even recognizing that a broader characterization and categorization is actually needed,” Gorman said, adding that rather than playing whack-a-mole with Chinese technology that poses a threat to U.S. national security, the country should develop a more systematic framework.

But in the meantime, U.S. consumers continue to turn to Chinese apps.

“Among the most downloaded apps consistently are Chinese-based ones like Temu and CapCut,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst covering social media at Insider Intelligence. “And then of course, there’s the early growth of Lemon8, which suggests that the appetite for Chinese apps in the U.S. is still growing.”

For e-commerce apps, the risk of spreading harmful misinformation may not be as high as on a social media service. An e-commerce platform like Temu or Shein is likely a less viable platform to spread propaganda than a video app like TikTok.

“People just aren’t really spending the same amount of time on commerce apps and they’re not exposed necessarily to the same kind of content that could potentially have a negative impact on young people,” Enberg said. “I also don’t necessarily think that the connection to China for some of these apps is as clear to the average consumer and I also don’t think that consumers are really going around thinking about where the apps that they’re using originate from.”

Still, the U.S. could find a reason for concern. A recent CNN report that found Temu sister company Pinduoduo, a shopping app popular in China, contained malware. The parent company of both apps, PDD Holdings, did not respond to a request for comment. Research staff at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission pointed to that report in assessing Temu’s data risks, though an analyst recently told CNBC that Temu has not been as “aggressive” in requesting access to consumers’ data as Pinduoduo.

At least one group has viewed the pressure on TikTok as an optimal time to raise concerns with another Chinese company popular in the U.S.: Shein. The group Shut Down Shein, which is a “coalition of individuals, American brands and human rights organizations,” according to executive director Chapin Fay, launched the day that TikTok’s CEO was hauled before Congress.

Customers hold shopping bags outside the Shein Tokyo showroom in Tokyo on Nov. 13, 2022. Reuters reports the fast fashion retailer is targeting a U.S. IPO in the second half of 2023.

Noriko Hayashi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“We were sort of agnostic on the timing, but we wanted to make sure that while people are talking about TikTok, there’s this other nefarious actor, Shein, who’s also collecting data and doing it all under the radar and also doing these other even worse things like slave labor,” said Fay, managing director of Actum consulting firm.

The group specifically takes issue with Shein’s alleged use of forced labor, as Bloomberg reported last year that tests revealed that cotton in clothes shipped to the U.S. were linked to a region in China where the U.S. government has said forced labor is deployed. China has denied the use of forced labor.

Shut Down Shein also rails against the company’s alleged use of an import loophole to avoid tariffs. Through the de minimis trade tax exemption, the group says, individual customers become the importer of their fast fashion goods, a practice that came up at a recent hearing by the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

A Shein spokesperson said in a statement that it “complies with the domestic tax legislations of the countries in which it operates.” The spokesperson also said that Shein has “zero tolerance for forced labor,” takes seriously visibility across its supply chain and requires suppliers to follow a “strict code of conduct.”

Fay said it’s important to recognize that the way Shein has been able to grow its brand and gain new customers, in large part via so-called influencer hauls, is through TikTok.

Fear of a ‘slippery slope’ ban

Faced with national security worries over TikTok, lawmakers have considered several proposals that could lead to a ban. But critics fear some proposed solutions could create a slippery slope of unintended consequences. And some say the most effective long-term solution for curbing the use of Chinese apps may be fostering an environment for robust alternatives to grow.

Perhaps the most prominent of the bills that could lead to TikTok’s ban in the U.S., the RESTRICT Act, would give the Commerce Secretary the power to recommend barring technology that comes from a select group of foreign adversary countries if they determine the risks cannot be sufficiently mitigated otherwise.

Though the proposal quickly garnered serious attention for its heavy-hitting group of sponsors, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, D-Va., and Commerce subcommittee on communications ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., it’s since appeared to lose the early momentum. That’s due in part to concerns raised by the tech industry and others that the bill could give the executive branch broad power to seek a ban on certain technology.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

“While I understand that Americans enjoy the convenience of Chinese e-commerce and the creative tools of many Chinese communications apps, we have to reckon with the fact that these companies ultimately are beholden to the demands of the Chinese government,” Warner said in a statement. “We’ve had an important and overdue conversation about the predatory and invasive practices of U.S. tech firms in recent years; those same concerns are valid with the growing sway of these foreign apps – and then exacerbated by the manner in which these PRC-based companies serve as instruments of PRC power.”

One of those critics of the bill’s current scope is Andy Yen, CEO of Proton, which makes an encrypted email service and VPN. While Yen believes that TikTok should be banned in the U.S., he fears the RESTRICT Act is currently too broad to effectively do so without additional consequences.

In a recent blog post, Yen argued that the bill would give the Commerce Secretary overly-broad power to designate additional governments as foreign adversaries and feared that ambiguous language in the bill could be used to penalize individuals who use VPNs to access apps that are banned in the U.S.

In the post, Yen suggested these issues could be resolved with changes to the bill’s language to make it more targeted and limited in scope.

Speaking on the “Pivot” podcast recently, Warner stressed the need for a rules-based approach that could be legally upheld to deal with tech from foreign adversaries. He said he believes criticism of the bill, including that it would target individual VPN users or that U.S. companies that do business in China could be swept up in enforcement action, is not valid, though he said he is open to amending the bill to make that more clear.

“There is a very legitimate national security concern here,” Yen said. “So I think it is something that regulators do need to tackle and this is why Congress is trying do something. But I think we need to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the values of freedom and democracy that make America different from China.”

Still, a TikTok ban would have other effects in the U.S., like yielding more market share to existing tech giants in the U.S. like Meta’s Facebook and Instagram. Proton has been an active proponent of antitrust reform to create what some companies see as a more level playing field for tech developers in the U.S.

Yen said the solution to creating more competitive digital markets in the U.S. is not to allow risky Chinese companies to run rampant, but rather “to have a level playing field that can allow other American companies or European companies to compete in the U.S. fairly.”

That’s a goal shared by Jonathan Ward, an expert on China who founded the Atlas Organization consulting firm.

“The best way that we can do this is to create alternatives,” Ward said. “Because even if these companies don’t take root in our own market, even if we’re able to successfully deny them access here, as we did with Huawei, they can flourish in other parts of the world,” he added, referring to the Chinese telecom company that’s been placed on a U.S. entity list over national security concerns.

“We’re also going to have to stand up American and free world alternatives to these companies because you can’t let them take over industries that matter or create apps that become integral to the fabric of our societies,” Ward said. “And that’s going to require an effort that goes beyond the Congress and into the sort of entire system of democracies worldwide.”

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WATCH: Montana’s TikTok ban is a ‘clear violation’ of the First Amendment, says NetChoice VP Carl Szabo

Montana's TikTok ban is a 'clear violation' of the First Amendment, says NetChoice VP Carl Szabo

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Startup Kinetic rolls out robots to fix electric cars, and someday robotaxis

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Startup Kinetic rolls out robots to fix electric cars, and someday robotaxis

Kinetic cofounders: CEO Nikhil Naikal, CTO Sander Marques, COO Chris Weber

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

While electric vehicle demand is still increasing in the U.S., the sales growth rate for cars that pollute less has cooled down in 2024 due partly to the high cost of insurance and repairs for tech-laden new models.

A 2024 study by J.D. Power found that, despite the climate benefits, only 26% of car buyers in the U.S. were “very likely to consider purchasing” an EV in the next year, and more than 20% were “very unlikely to consider an EV purchase” at all.

That’s where Santa Ana, California startup Kinetic Automation comes in. By providing diagnostics and recalibration of the high-tech systems in modern vehicles, the company hopes to decrease costs associated with EV ownership and repairs.

The startup, which employs about 40 people full-time, has developed a robotic system that uses computer vision and machine-learning software to quickly diagnose issues with a vehicle’s digital systems.

Kinetic CEO and co-founder Nikhil Naikal explained that a lot of new models, especially battery electrics, are loaded with bells and whistles such as touchscreens and robust infotainment software, along with a variety of cameras and sensors that enable everything from rapid charging to driver safety features including forward collision avoidance, lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control.

The existing collision repair industry is well-equipped to handle most physical fixes like replacing a bumper, a busted windshield, brakes and paint or adjusting alignment. But for many collision repair centers and auto dealerships, ensuring all sensors, software and computers are working properly can prove time-consuming and expensive.

Kinetic puts its robotic systems and technicians to work helping these shops and dealerships fix the finicky, “digital” aspects of customers’ cars.

Here’s how it works: A customer’s car rolls up to one of Kinetic’s service bays, where it is scanned from bumper to fender with machine vision sensors, some on a robotic arm that peers over the top of the vehicle.

The scan determines which systems need to be precisely programmed or need a recalibration. Then Kinetic’s software, which is connected to the vehicle’s systems, will initiate and track the completion of those fixes.

Kinetic uses robotics and AI to recalibrate the software and sensors in electric vehicles.

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

The company built its first four service hubs in Las Vegas, and Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California.

To fuel its growth, Kinetic has raised $21 million in a Series B round of venture funding led by Menlo Ventures, joined by Allstate Strategic Ventures, Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures and the company’s earliest investors Lux Capital, Construct Capital and Haystack Ventures.

Menlo Ventures’ Partner Shawn Carolan, who invested in Uber and Jump Bikes, said collision companies and auto dealerships that had worked with Kinetic as pilot customers helped convince his firm to lead the deal.

“They were saying, ‘This reduced our cycle time by days.’ Or ‘We got cars back to customers faster and cheaper,’ and ‘This made my life way easier,'” he explained. “So we knew this was already solving a tremendous pain point.”

Before starting Kinetic with his co-founders, COO Chris Weber and CTO Sander Marques, Naikal worked as the vice president of software engineering at Velodyne, a company that made lidar sensors that enable robots, drones and autonomous vehicles to detect and avoid objects in their surrounding environment. Velodyne merged with Ouster in 2023.

Weber previously worked as an operations leader at Uber, while Marques is a repeat tech entrepreneur whose prior company developed engine control modules for high-performance vehicles.

Kinetic will one day provide its services to robotaxi fleets, Naikal said, and to the owners of other autonomous vehicles. But for now, the startup is focused on hiring, training technicians and building out its service hubs across the U.S. to handle a higher volume of auto repairs, especially the electric vehicles that are growing to comprise a larger portion of cars on U.S. roads each year.

So far, Kinetic has most commonly worked on Ford Mach-E, GM Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Ioniq EVs, and some Teslas at its existing service hubs, the CEO said.

Market research firm Canalys forecasts that sales of battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles combined will reach 2.2 million units in 2024 in North America, representing about 12.5% of all new vehicle sales in the region.

“Motor vehicle insurance for EVs, and across the board, has been a major contributor to inflation rising something like 20% when you look at the Consumer Price Index over the last 12 months,” Naikal said. “I’d like to hope we can shave a few points off of that while making people more comfortable switching to electrics.”

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OpenAI competitor Anthropic announces its most powerful AI yet

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OpenAI competitor Anthropic announces its most powerful AI yet

Jakub Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images

OpenAI competitor Anthropic on Thursday announced Claude 3.5 Sonnet, its most powerful artificial intelligence model yet.

Claude is one of the chatbots that, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google‘s Gemini, has exploded in popularity in the past year. Anthropic, which was founded by ex-OpenAI research executives, has backers including Google, Salesforce and Amazon. In the past year, it’s closed five different funding deals totaling about $7.3 billion.

The news follows Anthropic’s debut of its Claude 3 family of models in March and OpenAI’s GPT-4o in May. The company said Claude 3.5 Sonnet is faster than its previous leading model, Claude 3 Opus, and is the first model from Anthropic’s new Claude 3.5 family.

Claude 3.5 Sonnet

Claude 3.5 Sonnet is free from the company’s website, Claude.ai, and in the Claude iPhone app. Claude Pro and Team subscribers can access the latest model with higher rate limits.

“It shows marked improvement in grasping nuance, humor, and complex instructions, and is exceptional at writing high-quality content with a natural, relatable tone,” the company said in a blog post. It can also write, edit and execute code.

Anthropic also announced “Artifacts,” which it said allows a user to ask its Claude chatbot to, for example, generate a text document or code and then opens the result in a dedicated window. “This creates a dynamic workspace where they can see, edit, and build upon Claude’s creations in real-time,” the company said, adding that it expects Artifacts will be useful for code development, legal contract drafting and analysis, business report writing and more.

Claude Artifacts

As startups like Anthropic and OpenAI gain steam in the generative AI business, they — alongside tech giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Meta — have been part of an AI arms race to integrate the technology to ensure they don’t fall behind in a market that’s predicted to top $1 trillion in revenue within a decade.

News of Anthropic’s new model follows the company’s debut in May of its first-ever enterprise offering.

The plan for businesses, dubbed Team, had been in development over the last few quarters and involved beta-testing with between 30 and 50 customers in industries such as technology, financial services, legal services and health care, Anthropic co-founder Daniela Amodei told CNBC in an interview last month. The idea for the service was partially borne out of many of those same customers asking for a dedicated enterprise product, Amodei added.

“So much of what we were hearing from enterprise businesses is people are kind of using Claude at the office already,” Amodei said at the time.

Last month, shortly after Anthropic’s new product debut, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger joined the company as chief product officer. Krieger, the former chief technology officer of Meta-owned Instagram, grew the platform to 1 billion users and increased its engineering team to more than 450 people during his time there, per a release. OpenAI’s former safety leader Jan Leike also joined the company in May.

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A marathon, not a sprint: Apple’s AI push faces big challenges in China

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A marathon, not a sprint: Apple's AI push faces big challenges in China

The Apple Siri AI icon is being displayed on a smartphone, with Apple Intelligence in the background. 

Jonathan Raa | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Apple’s big artificial intelligence push faces some big challenges in China — one of the iPhone maker’s most critical markets — as Beijing maintains strict rules around the buzzy technology.

The uncertain path in China comes at a time when Apple’s market share is being eroded in the world’s second largest economy by a resurgent Huawei and other local smartphones players, which are talking up their AI features.

Apple Intelligence is the Cupertino giant’s play that aims to bring AI across its devices. It features an improved version of Apple’s voice assistant Siri, as well as features that automatically organize your email or transcribe and summarize audio footage.

Apple said that Apple Intelligence will roll out in U.S. English this fall, with additional languages, features and platforms due to arrive over the course of next year. The company was, however, quiet on the product offering in China during the AI launch at its annual developers conference this month.

That’s likely to do with China’s stringent rules on AI, analysts told CNBC, as Apple tries to figure out how to approach the complex market.

“China is in another world when it comes to AI given the regulatory environment there, so China is a big asterisk on Apple’s big announcements last week,” Bryan Ma, vice president of devices research at IDC, told CNBC via email.

Beijing has enacted various regulations over the past few years focused on areas ranging from data protection to large language models — the massive sets of data that underpin applications like ChatGPT.

China’s AI market is heavily regulated. Some of the rules include requirements for LLM providers to get approval for the commercial use of their models. Generative AI providers are also responsible for taking down “illegal” content.

Apple’s China AI challenges

Navigating these rules will be tricky for Apple.

Firstly, some of the features of Apple Intelligence are based on Apple’s own language model, which runs on both the phone and on the company’s own servers.

Under Chinese rules, Apple would likely need to get its AI model approved by authorities.

Secondly, one of the biggest announcements this month was that Apple’s voice assistant Siri can tap into OpenAI’s ChatGPT for certain requests — but ChatGPT is banned in China, meaning Apple would have to find an equivalent domestic partner.

Baidu and Alibaba are among China’s technology giants that have their own LLMs and voice assistants, ranking them as companies with which Apple can potentially partner.

Meanwhile, China’s internet is heavily censored with regulators concerned about the potential for AI services to generate content, which may go against Beijing’s views or ideology.

The likelihood is that Apple will have to build an on-device AI model and a cloud-based AI model that complies with local regulations, Canalys analyst Nicole Peng told CNBC over email.

The other part of the equation on AI for Apple to be successful in China, according to CCS Insight Chief Analyst Ben Wood, is for the company to create a localized AI experience on its devices that appeals to Chinese users.

“Localising the Apple Intelligence experience will be a major challenge for Apple,” Wood told CNBC. “As with all technology deployments, there are nuances to the way the service is delivered to respect the specific customs, regulations and use cases in a particular country.”

Privacy

A key part of Apple’s pitch during the AI launch was its focus on privacy. The company announced Private Cloud Compute, whereby AI is processed on servers owned by Apple. Apple said that data processed is not stored.

Whether the tech titan will be able to fully own its own servers is another question. Chinese iCloud data is stored inside servers located in China which are run by a third party.

This could mean Apple might require a similar partnership for its AI computing servers, opening the tech giant up to critcisms about how private the data actually is.

Investors started to do the math on Apple's AI news: Deepwater's Munster on delayed stock boost

“Maintaining complete user privacy in an AI era in heavily regulated markets such as China will be the biggest test for Apple yet,” Neil Shah, partner at Counterpoint Research, told CNBC. “Its going to be challenging for Apple to have fully controlled own private compute servers in China.”

CCS Insights’ Wood said Apple’s focus on privacy could help introduce AI features to the market. China passed a major data protection law in 2021, which looks to limit how information is collected and stored.

“Apple’s on-going focus on privacy and security practices may help placate local regulators and Apple has not been afraid to make concessions when required,” Wood said.

Apple’s path to AI in China

CNBC has contacted Apple over Private Cloud Compute and the company’s AI ambitions in China. A spokesperson did not directly address those questions, but pointed CNBC to an interview in the Fast Company business magazine with Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering.

Federighi expressed the desire to bring Apple Intelligence to China.

“We certainly want to find a way to bring all of our best product capabilities to all of our customers,” he said in the Fast Company interview, adding that “in some regions of the world, there are regulations that need to be worked through.”

The Apple executive said the process was under way to introduce the AI products to China, but gave no timeline.

Smartphone makers globally are talking up their AI features as a way to sell high-end phones to consumers who want to hold onto their device for longer.

Apple has been facing a number of challenges in China, where its market share fell to 15% in the first quarter of 2024, versus 20% in the same period the year before, according to Canalys data. Huawei, whose smartphone business was crippled by U.S. sanctions, revived once more and is now the biggest smartphone player in China, where it competes with Apple with phones targeting the premium segment.

Apple’s lag behind domestic rivals in launching AI features in China is unlikely to be detrimental to iPhone sales.

“For Apple, deploying China-grade Apple Intelligence is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. It will be deployed in phases over the years until Apple is confident and until then it will have to face some competition,” Counterpoint Research’s Shah said.

Wood said Apple’s control of its hardware and software integration will allow it to deliver a different experience from that of its rivals.

“Apple has an uncanny ability to explain its services and features better than rivals, even if it is essentially delivering the same experience or a subset of what rivals can offer,” Wood said.

“Despite the current focus on AI by rival China-based smartphone makers, Apple should still be in a strong position.”

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