Eric Schmidt on buying TikTok: ‘I looked at it for a while,’ but the government should regulate instead

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Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive officer of Google, said he had explored a possible purchase of TikTok but has moved on from the idea of trying to acquire the popular video-sharing app from its Chinese owners. 

A new federal law requires TikTok to be sold by its parent, ByteDance Ltd., within a year or face a ban in the US. Schmidt, who ran Alphabet Inc.’s Google for over a decade, confirmed on Tuesday that he at one point considered purchasing the platform — though he added that it’s no longer on the table.

“I’m not currently looking at that,” Schmidt said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “I looked at it for a while.” He added that his personal view was that the US would be better off regulating TikTok, rather than banning it or having the app be subject to judicial action.

ByteDance is unlikely to sell off the core technology that determines what people see in their feeds, an algorithm that has propelled TikTok to more than 170 million monthly US users. The Chinese government would have to sign off on any such deal, leaving some to speculate that a buyer would seek to acquire the American operations and users — but not the tech that underpins the app.

Recreating the algorithm would be difficult and expensive. Since TikTok rose in popularity during the pandemic for giving users an automatically curated feed of videos, tech giants like Meta Platforms Inc. and Alphabet have spent years to try to duplicate the experience to varying degrees of success.

Schmidt told Bloomberg that he views the app as more akin to television than social media, and that he hoped the US would consider regulating it as such. “You can regulate television by the equivalent of equal time rule,” he said, referring to the federal rule whereby American radio and television broadcast stations must provide equivalent access to competing political candidates. “But somehow we’re not having that conversation,” Schmidt said.

TikTok on Tuesday sued the US government to try and block the law, claiming that the legislation stifles free speech for the app’s users. Supporters of the law say TikTok’s ties to China through its parent company open the possibility that China’s government would access US users’ data or influence what shows up on their feeds – an assertion that TikTok and officials in Beijing have consistently rejected.

Schmidt is the 47th-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $32.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Since leaving Google, he has made the US rivalry with China a top focus through an initiative called the Special Competitive Studies Project.

For now, he said, the US has an edge over China in the rapidly emerging field of artificial intelligence. “We are well ahead two or three years probably of China, which in my world is an eternity,” Schmidt said.

In Europe, Schmidt said he sees regulation, including a new European Union framework governing AI, as an impediment to innovation. He added that China is struggling because of semiconductor shortages but is ready to win if it can get the hardware it needs.

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