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A Muslim-Hindu Kiss Puts Netflix India in the Crosshairs

NEW DELHI — On television, Lata and Kabir are clandestine lovers thwarted by faith and history. She is Hindu and he a Muslim in India in the early 1950s, in the wake of bloody sectarian clashes that echo through the country to this day. At one point, in a secluded spot with a Hindu temple as the backdrop, the two young college students share a furtive but passionate kiss.

In the real world, that onscreen kiss has embroiled Netflix, the American streaming service, in the increasingly bitter and religiously charged world of Indian politics.

Members of the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government have asked the authorities to investigate Netflix, calling the scene in the television series “A Suitable Boy” offensive to their beliefs. They have also called on Indians to boycott the streaming service.

Netflix is not likely to face serious legal trouble, experts say. But the campaign puts pressure on the streaming service at a time when the government is increasing censorship of what Indians watch online.

The campaign also comes as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are pressing anti-Muslim initiatives, including one in the state of Madhya Pradesh that would increase penalties against anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion. The party has won over a wide swath of Hindu voters with its nationalist pitch, but it has also divided the country and presided over an increase in religious tensions and sometimes violence, particularly against Muslims.

The campaign “could perversely incite Netflix and other content producers to think twice before commissioning work that depicts interfaith relations in a positive light in the future,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University.

Thomas Cherian, a spokesman for Netflix, said the company had no comment on the police complaint. Netflix, which launched in India only in 2016, has a small but growing audience in the country.

“A Suitable Boy” is based on a 1993 novel by Vikram Seth and revolves around a young Hindu woman struggling with her mother’s edict that she must soon be wed. The six-part series, originally produced by the BBC, takes place in the years after the partition of India, when millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs scrambled to get on the correct side of the border after what is now Pakistan was carved out of the country to be a mostly Muslim nation. An untold number of people perished in the resulting violence.

The series was directed by Mira Nair, who was born in India and has had a long career as a filmmaker in India and Hollywood, directing movies including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala” and “Vanity Fair.”

Narottam Mishra, a member of the B.J.P. and home minister in Madhya Pradesh state, said on Monday that a party youth leader had filed the complaint about “A Suitable Boy” because of scenes that depict the protagonists kissing at a Hindu temple.

“To me there is nothing suitable in that. In our temple, if you are filming a kissing scene, Rama music is on in the background, I do not consider it good,” Mr. Mishra said at a news conference on Monday, referring to Hindu devotional music. “For that there are other places.”

Rakesh Kumar Singh, the police chief in the district where the complaint was filed, said an investigation was underway.

The complaint named Monika Shergill, vice president for content for Netflix India, and Ambika Khurana, the company’s director of public policy in India.

If convicted, Ms. Shergill and Ms. Khurana would face a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.

In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offense, and this isn’t the first time Bollywood actors, comedians or others in the entertainment industry have been charged.

But courts, including India’s Supreme Court, have generally taken a narrow view of the law, saying that content deemed offensive by some isn’t necessarily intentionally malicious, and that invoking the section on religious sentiment too liberally threatens freedom of speech.

In this case, legal experts said it was unlikely that a police investigation would advance very far.

However, the possibility of a chilling effect on Netflix is real, as rhetoric against interreligious romance in India heats up and as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes greater control over digital content.

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Credit…Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gaurav Tiwari, the B.J.P. youth leader who filed the complaint, had issued a call to action on Twitter even before that, urging his followers to delete Netflix from their phones. He also accused the video-streaming service of promoting “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu nationalists who accuse minority Muslims of luring Hindu women to marry them and forcing them to convert to Islam to change India’s demographic balance.

The complaint was filed in Madhya Pradesh, the state where lawmakers are planning to consider a bill early next year that would make forced religious conversion by marriage a nonbailable offense subject to a five-year sentence. Mr. Mishra has said the bill is meant to check the rising incidence of forced conversions in the state.

State legislatures in Uttar Pradesh, whose top official is a Hindu monk, and two other B.J.P.-controlled states are likely to take up similar bills. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the B.J.P., is lobbying state governments across India for laws regulating interfaith marriages.

Conservative norms in India ensure that interreligious unions remain relatively rare, though past Indian governments have encouraged secular views on the matter. India’s Special Marriage Act, passed in 1954, was intended to bolster the secular ideals in the country’s Constitution by overturning a British colonial-era law that required the bride or groom to renounce his or her faith.

Amid the rising tide of Hindu nationalism, interfaith relationships have come under sharp criticism from anti-Muslim forces.

Last month, a unit of India’s Tata conglomerate withdrew a jewelry advertisement featuring a Hindu-Muslim family celebrating a baby shower, following threats to one of its stores and wide criticism on social media.

Beyond issues of religion, Netflix and other streaming services were already getting increased scrutiny from the Indian government.

Earlier this month, the Indian government announced rules to regulate content on video streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar. The Indian government already plays a similar role in movies and broadcast television, but many users of streaming services enjoy the scant restrictions on programming they watch online.

Free speech advocates worry that Indian viewers could be subjected to the censorship of language, sex, violence and even cigarette smoking they already experience in Bollywood and Hollywood films shown in Indian movie theaters.

Bollywood and show business have sometimes made for easy targets for India’s politicians and activists. But they also can serve as a handy rallying center for whipping up public sentiment. While “A Suitable Boy” isn’t likely to get pulled from India’s smartphones and computer screens, it could remain a political talking point for some time.

The Netflix series “constitutes for these conservative organizations both a threat as well as an opportunity to mobilize their base around a symbolic target, and spread false notions that vilify Muslims at large,” said Mr. Verniers, of Ashoka University.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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Hollywood’s ‘We’re Not in Kansas Anymore’ Moment

LOS ANGELES — In explaining why WarnerMedia had decided to release the much-anticipated big-budget “Wonder Woman 1984” simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max on Christmas Day, the company’s chief executive, Jason Kilar, invoked the classic Hollywood film “The Wizard of Oz.”

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Mr. Kilar said in a statement.

No longer, he said, would a film’s success be judged solely by the box office revenue it generates in theaters. Instead, it would be measured partly by the number of HBO Max subscribers it is able to attract. And just like Dorothy entering the Technicolor world of Oz, Hollywood feels as if it is stepping into a new era — one with streaming at the center.

The end-of-the-year holiday season usually means that theaters are packed with blockbuster crowd pleasers, award hopefuls — and moviegoers. Not this year. With many theaters shut because of the coronavirus and the ones that are open struggling to attract audiences, many studios have either pushed the release dates of major films into 2021 or created a hybrid model in which the theaters still in operation can show new releases while they are also made available through streaming or on-demand services.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is the most prominent example so far to be released using the hybrid model. But when it appears on HBO Max on Christmas Day, it will join Pixar’s animated “Soul,” and DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods: A New Age” as marquee, holiday-season films that were expected to be box office favorites but are now likely to be primarily seen in people’s living rooms.

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Credit…Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment, via Associated Press

For companies that have their own streaming platforms, like WarnerMedia and Disney, releasing movies this way is now seen as an opportunity to drive subscriptions. Both companies have said that the moves will only last through the pandemic, but they also both recently shuffled their executive responsibilities to make it clear that streaming is the new priority. (Disney, for example, now has a central division that decides how its content is distributed, a change in strategy that puts Disney+ at the top of the studio’s priorities.) And audiences may not want studios to go back to the old way of releasing films that gave theaters 90 days of exclusive rights.

“There will be a new normal,” said Jason Squire, editor of “The Movie Business Book” and a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “Over the years, there has been a lot of tension between theatrical exhibition and studio distribution but not a lot of change. The pandemic has jump-started the change.”

It wasn’t long ago that Hollywood viewed streaming as an unwelcome insurgency. Several years ago, when Netflix began to seriously compete for Oscars, traditionalists scoffed at the thought of bestowing prestigious awards on films that were only nominally released theatrically. (This year, bowing to pandemic reality, the motion picture academy announced that films could skip a theatrical release and be eligible for Oscar consideration.)

Still, studios have long wanted to shorten the exclusive window given to theaters. Theater chains aggressively lobbied against that, worried that people would be reluctant to buy tickets to a movie they could soon see at home.

The sanctity of the theatrical release was being zealously guarded even after the pandemic lockdowns began. In April, Universal Pictures had a successful video-on-demand release for “Trolls World Tour” and said it would make more movies available that way without an exclusive theatrical run. Adam Aron, the chief executive of AMC, the largest theater operator in the world, called the move “categorically unacceptable” and said his company would no longer book any Universal films.

By July, however, the two companies signed a multiyear deal whereby Universal movies would play in AMC theaters for a minimum of 17 days before becoming available in homes through premium video-on-demand, or P.V.O.D. in industry parlance. This past week, Universal signed similar deals with Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain in North America, and Cineplex, Canada’s top exhibitor, adding the provision that for movies opening to $50 million in ticket sales, the exclusive theatrical window will stretch to 31 days.

The shortened window means the studio can theoretically spend less on marketing than is typically required when theatrical and home video debuts are three months apart. And studios typically keep 80 percent of premium on-demand revenue, while ticket sales from theatrical releases are split roughly 50-50 between studios and theater companies.

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Credit…Disney/Pixar

“Our hope is that by putting P.V.O.D. into the marketplace, we are improving the economics for the studio and as a result of that there will be more films that will get released theatrically,” said Peter Levinsohn, vice chairman and chief distribution officer for Universal. “The whole goal here is to have more efficiencies in our marketing, keep the films more profitable and stop the films from being sold off” to subscription services like Netflix or Amazon.

Warner Bros. chose to defend the tried-and-true theatrical model, hoping that Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” would draw people back to theaters this summer after the first wave of the virus passed and 68 percent of American theaters were able to reopen. But with theaters still closed in the two largest markets, New York and Los Angeles, the film only grossed $56 million in its entire U.S. run. That was a far cry from Mr. Nolan’s previous theatrical achievements, like “Interstellar,” which earned $188 million domestically, and a stark warning to other distributors that the traditional way of releasing films was not going to work in 2020.

Today, the theatrical climate is more grim. Half of the theaters in the United States are closed and virus cases are rising around the country. Regal Cinemas, the second-largest chain in the U.S., has closed all of its theaters, citing a lack of films and audience. If there is not a federal grant program available to theaters soon, John Fithian, chief executive of the theaters’ national trade association, said he expects 70 percent of them will either close permanently or file for bankruptcy by early next year.

Big-budget spectacles have kept audiences flocking to movie theaters even through waves of home entertainment competition, from VCRs to streaming. That’s benefited both theater chains and studios, and it’s why few expect movies of the size of “Wonder Woman 1984” to be going directly to streaming post-pandemic.

A move away from theaters would affect what kinds of films are made. In short, if there is less box office money to be collected — because of a reduction in the number of movie theaters or a permanent shift in consumer behavior — studios would be forced to make fewer big-budget films. For those who believe Hollywood has become too reliant on lumbering superhero movies, that may actually be welcome news. The thousands of people each of those films employ would undoubtedly have a different perspective.

But others are not sure the change will be so drastic, pointing to the power of the theatrical experience.

Charles Roven, a producer for “Wonder Woman 1984,” said in an interview that he was confident that its release was not a sign of a new long-term strategy. “There is no question they want to make HBO Max successful and they should,” he said of Warner Bros. “But to say that this particular thing is what’s going to happen in the future, that would be taking a leap.”

Disney chose to bypass U.S. theaters altogether and release the $200 million “Mulan” on Disney+ in September, charging subscribers $30 on top of their monthly fee to watch the live-action adaptation of the animated film. Sales were hurt by an outcry over a filming location in China, but Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, told analysts earlier this month that he saw “enough very positive results before that controversy started to know that we’ve got something here in terms of the premier access strategy.” Disney is planning to send several more big-budget movies to Disney+.

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Credit…Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros Entertainment, via Associated Press

For studios without their own streaming services, the calculus is a bit different. While many opted to postpone their theatrical releases until 2021, others sold off films as a way to recoup some cash. Paramount offloaded “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to Netflix and “Coming to America 2” to Amazon, for example. In a twist, Netflix is currently one of the few studios still sending product to the struggling chains. From now to the end of the year, Netflix will give eight of its films limited theatrical runs before they appear on the service, including potential Oscar contenders like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and David Fincher’s “Mank.”

Universal is the other big studio still supplying films to theaters, buoyed by its new P.V.O.D. deals with theaters that allow it to distribute both larger movies like the “Croods” sequel and smaller films from its indie subsidiary, Focus Features.

That’s good news for Bobbie Bagby Ford, an executive vice president at the family-owned B&B Theaters, the nation’s sixth-largest theater chain based in Liberty, Mo.

Ms. Bagby Ford said that before the pandemic her company would not have accepted Warner’s plan to release “Wonder Woman 1984″ in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. Now though, any opportunity to show a film that could do some actual business would be a relief for a company that is staving off bankruptcy.

“Our moviegoers in the Midwest are very excited to come back, and they have been asking about ‘Wonder Woman’ for months and months and months,” Ms. Bagby Ford said.

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Credit…Jasin Boland/Disney, via Associated Press

Mr. Kilar, WarnerMedia’s chief, said in his statement that the pandemic was the main reason to release “Wonder Woman 1984” in theaters and through streaming. But he also noted how the move put the control of how to watch the film firmly in the hands of the audience.

“A little over four million fans in the U.S. enjoyed the first ‘Wonder Woman’ movie on its opening day in 2017,” Mr. Kilar wrote. “Is it possible for that to happen again this Christmas with ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ between theaters and HBO Max? We are so excited to find out, doing everything in our power to provide the power of choice to fans.”

Should that work, it’s unlikely things will ever be the same.

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Twitter, Facebook and YouTube Survived Election Day. More Tests Loom.

OAKLAND, Calif. — For months, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube prepared to clamp down on misinformation on Election Day.

On Tuesday, most of their plans went off without a hitch. The social platforms added labels to misleading posts by President Trump and notified their users that there was no immediate outcome to the presidential race. On television, news anchors even cited fact-checks similar to those made by Twitter and Facebook.

Then came Wednesday. With ballots still being counted and the absence of a clear result, the flow of misinformation shifted away from seeding doubts about the vote to false claims of victory. Twitter rapidly labeled several tweets by Mr. Trump over the course of the day as being misleading about the result of his race, and also did the same to tweets from others in his circle, such as Eric Trump and the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. And Facebook and YouTube used their home pages to show people accurate information about the election.

The actions reinforced how even a smooth performance on Election Day did not mean that the social media companies could relax, fighting a relentless flow of toxic content. In fact, the biggest tests for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are still looming, misinformation researchers said, as false narratives may surge until a final result in the presidential race is certified.

“What we actually saw on Election Day from the companies is that they were extremely responsive and faster than they’ve ever been,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. But now, he said, misinformation was solely focused on the results and undermining them.

“You have a hyperfocused audience and a moment in time where there is a huge amount of uncertainty, and bad actors can use that opportunistically,” he said.

Twitter said it was continuing to monitor for misinformation. Facebook said, “Our work isn’t done — we’ll stay vigilant and promote reliable information on Facebook as votes continue to be counted.” YouTube said it also was on alert for “election-related content” in the coming days.

The companies had all braced for a chaotic Election Day, working to avoid a repeat of 2016, when their platforms were misused by Russians to spread divisive disinformation. In recent months, the companies had rolled out numerous anti-misinformation measures, including suspending or banning political ads, slowing down the flow of information and highlighting accurate information and context.

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On Tuesday, as Americans voted across the country, falsehoods about broken voting machines and biased poll workers popped up repeatedly. But the companies weren’t tested until Mr. Trump — with early results showing how tight the race was — posted on Twitter and Facebook just before 1 a.m. Eastern time to baselessly lash out at the electoral process.

“They are trying to STEAL the Election,” Mr. Trump posted on the sites, without being specific about who he meant.

Twitter moved quickly, hiding Mr. Trump’s inaccurate tweet behind a label that cautioned people that the claim was “disputed” and “might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” Twitter, which had started labeling Mr. Trump’s tweets for the first time in May, also restricted users’ ability to like and share the post.

On Wednesday morning, Twitter added more labels to posts from Mr. Trump. In one, he tweeted that his early leads in Democratic states “started to magically disappear.” In another message, Mr. Trump said unnamed people were working to make his lead in the battleground state of Pennsylvania “disappear.”

Twitter also applied other labels to posts that falsely asserted victory. One was added to a post by Ben Wikler, head of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, in which he asserted prematurely that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won the state. The Associated Press and other news outlets later called Wisconsin for Mr. Biden, though Mr. Trump called for a recount.

On Wednesday afternoon, Twitter also affixed context to tweets from Eric Trump, one of Mr. Trump’s sons, and Ms. McEnany when they preemptively claimed that Mr. Trump had won in Pennsylvania, even though the race there had not been called. The company also fact-checked other assertions from Mr. Trump claiming victory in several battleground states such as North Carolina and Georgia, where the race has not been called, and restricted his false statements about voter fraud from being shared.

“As votes are still being counted across the country, our teams continue to take enforcement action on tweets that prematurely declare victory or contain misleading information about the election broadly,” Twitter said.

Facebook took a more cautious approach. Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, has said he has no desire to fact-check the president or other political figures because he believes in free speech. Yet to prevent itself from being misused in the election, Facebook said it would couch premature claims of victory with a notification that the election had yet to be called for a candidate, if necessary.

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Unlike Twitter, Facebook did not restrict users from sharing or commenting on Mr. Trump’s posts. But it was the first time Facebook had used such labels, part of the company’s plan to add context to posts about the election. A spokesman said the company “planned and prepared for these scenarios and built the essential systems and tools.”

YouTube, which is not used regularly by Mr. Trump, faced fewer high-profile problems than Twitter and Facebook. All YouTube videos about election results included a label that said the election might not be over and linked to a Google page with results from The Associated Press.

But the site did encounter a problem early on Tuesday night when several YouTube channels, one with more than a million subscribers, said they were livestreaming election results. What the live streams actually showed was a graphic of a projection of an election outcome with Mr. Biden leading. They were also among the first results that appeared when users searched for election results.

After media reports pointed out the issue, YouTube removed the video streams, citing its policy prohibiting spam, deceptive practices and scams.

On Wednesday, One America News Network, a conservative cable news network with nearly a million subscribers on YouTube, also posted a video commentary to the site claiming that Mr. Trump had already won the election and that Democrats were “tossing Republican ballots, harvesting fake ballots and delaying results” to cause confusion. The video has been viewed more than 280,000 times.

Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman, said the video did not violate the company’s policy regarding misleading claims about voting. He said the video carried a label that the election results were not final. YouTube added that it had removed ads from the video because it did not allow creators to make money off content that undermined “confidence in elections with demonstrably false information.”

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the tech companies still had a fight ahead against election misinformation, but were prepared for it.

“There will always be a long tail of disinformation, but it will become less impactful,” he said. “They are still working, for sure, and will try to maintain this staffing level and focus until the outcome is generally accepted.”

But Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz, a progressive nonprofit that tracks misinformation, said Facebook, Twitter and YouTube needed to do more.

“Platforms need to quickly expand their efforts before the country is plunged into further chaos and confusion,” he said. “It is a democratic emergency.”

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It’s Google’s World. We Just Live In It.

About 20 years ago, I typed Google.com into my web browser for the first time. It loaded a search bar and buttons. I punched in “D.M.V. sample test,” scrolled through the results and clicked on a site.

Wow, I thought to myself. Google’s minimalist design was a refreshing alternative to other search engines at the time — remember AltaVista, Yahoo! and Lycos? — which greeted us with a jumble of ads and links to news articles. Even better, Google seemed to show more up-to-date, relevant results.

And the entire experience took just a few seconds. Once I found the link I needed, I was done with Google.

Two decades later, my experience with Google is considerably different. When I do a Google search in 2020, I spend far more time in the internet company’s universe. If I look for chocolate chips, for example, I see Google ads for chocolate chips pop up at the top of my screen, followed by recipes that Google has scraped from across the web, followed by Google Maps and Google Reviews of nearby bakeries, followed by YouTube videos for how to bake chocolate chip cookies. (YouTube, of course, is owned by Google.)

It isn’t just that I am spending more time in a Google search, either. The Silicon Valley company has leveraged the act of looking for something online into such a vast technology empire over the years that it has crept into my home, my work, my devices and much more. It has become the tech brand that dominates my life — and probably yours, too.

On my Apple iPhone, I use Google’s apps for photo albums and maps, along with tools for calendar, email and documents. On my computer and tablet, the various web browsers I use feature Google as the default search bar. For work, I use Google Finance (to look up stock quotes), Google Drive (to store files), Google Meet (to teleconference) and Google Hangouts (to communicate).

In my home, Google is also everywhere. My Nest home security camera is made by Google. A Google voice service rings my door buzzer. To learn how to repair a gutter, I recently watched home improvement videos on YouTube. In online maps, Google has photos of my house taken from outer space and camera-embedded cars.

By my unofficial estimate, I spend at least seven hours a day on Google-related products.

Google’s prevalence has brought the company to a critical point. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued it for anticompetitive practices, in the most significant antitrust action by the U.S. government against a technology company in decades. The government’s case focused on Google’s search and how it appeared to create a monopoly through exclusive business contracts and agreements that locked out rivals.

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Google said in a tweet that the lawsuit was “deeply flawed.” The company added, “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to or because they can’t find alternatives.”

To Gabriel Weinberg, the chief executive of DuckDuckGo, which offers a privacy-focused search engine, what I have experienced was Google’s plan all along.

“I don’t think it was happenstance,” he said. “They’ve been using their different products to maintain their dominance in their core market, which is search.”

That has created a privacy cost for many of us, Mr. Weinberg said. Google, he said, collects reams of information about us across its products, allowing it to stitch together detailed profiles about our behavior and interests.

So in 2012, Mr. Weinberg broke up with Google and purged his accounts. “I got to understand the privacy implications of building massive profiles on people — and the massive harm,” he said.

But Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “What Would Google Do?,” a book about the search giant’s rise, said there was still plenty of room outside Google’s world. For one, we don’t use Google for social media — we’re on Facebook and TikTok. Artificial intelligence, even the type that Google is developing, is still pretty unintelligent, he added.

“The internet is still very, very young,” Mr. Jarvis said.

To test that argument, I decided to catalog Google’s presence in our lives. Here are some results.

When we browse the web, we are probably interacting with Google without even realizing it. That’s because most websites that we visit contain Google’s ad technologies, which track our browsing. When we load a web article containing an ad served by Google, the company keeps a record of the website that loaded the ad — even if we didn’t click on the ad.

And guess what. Most ads we see are served by Google. Last year, the company and Facebook accounted for 59 percent of digital ad spending, according to the research firm eMarketer. Google dominates 63 percent of that slice of the pie.

Google’s ad technologies also include invisible analytics code, which runs in the background of many websites. About 74 percent of the sites we visit run Google analytics, according to an analysis by DuckDuckGo. So that’s even more data we are feeding about ourselves to Google, often without knowing it.

Let’s start with Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world. People with Android devices inevitably download apps from Google’s Play store.

Android includes Google’s staple apps for maps and email, and Google search is prominently featured for looking up articles and digging through device settings. Google’s voice-powered virtual assistant is also part of Android devices.

Even if you own an Apple iPhone, as I do, Google looms large.

Google has been the default search bar on the iPhone’s Safari browser since 2007. Gmail is the most popular email service in the world, with more than 1.5 billion users, so chances are you use it on your iPhone. And good luck finding a service other than YouTube for watching those cooking and music videos on your phone.

In fact, Google owns 10 of the 100 most-downloaded apps in the Google and Apple app stores, according to App Annie, a mobile analytics firm.

Outside smartphones, Google is the dominant force on our personal computers. By some estimates, more than 65 percent of us use Google’s Chrome web browser. And in education, our schools have chosen the Chromebook, low-cost PCs that run Google’s operating system, as the most widely used tech tool for students.

This can be brief: YouTube is by far the largest video-hosting platform. Period. About 215 million Americans watch YouTube, spending 27 minutes a day on the site, on average. That’s up from 22 minutes a few years ago, according to eMarketer.

Another way you might watch Google videos is through YouTube TV, a streaming service that offers a modest bundle of TV channels. Released in 2017, YouTube TV had more than two million users last year, according to Google. That’s not far behind Sling TV, a similar bundle service introduced by Dish in 2015, which had about 2.6 million subscribers last year.

If you recently bought an internet-connected gadget for your home, chances are that Google is behind it. After all, the company offers Google Home, one of the most popular smart speakers and powered by Google’s virtual assistant, and it owns Nest, the smart-home brand that makes internet-connected security cameras, smoke alarms and thermostats.

We often interact with Google even when we use an app that lacks a clear connection with it. That’s because Google provides the cloud infrastructure, or the server technology that lets us stream videos and download files, to other brands. If you’re using TikTok in the United States, guess what: You’re in Google’s cloud. (TikTok may soon switch cloud providers under a deal with Oracle.)

Even Mr. Weinberg, who quit Google, said he had been unable to shake its services entirely. He said he still watched the occasional Google-hosted video when there was no alternative.

“If somebody’s sending a video that I need to watch and it’s only on YouTube, then that’s just the reality,” he said.

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ByteDance’s Need for a TikTok-Oracle Deal: China is Slowing

TikTok’s Chinese owner has fought tooth and nail to keep control over its wildly popular platform for dancing teens and young Los Angeles influencers. One big reason: The days of fast internet fortunes and meteoric digital growth in its home market may be coming to an end.

With Microsoft dropping out of the race to take over TikTok in the United States, Oracle has emerged as the leading contender to save the video app from impending restrictions from the Trump administration. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has chosen the software giant to be its U.S. technology partner, an arrangement that would most likely give Oracle oversight over data on American users.

Speaking on CNBC Monday morning, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that government officials would review the proposal by ByteDance and Oracle this week, and then make a recommendation to President Trump. Mr. Mnuchin did not make clear whether Oracle would also buy a majority share in TikTok’s U.S. operations as part of the proposed deal. Mr. Trump had pressed for new ownership of the app as a way to address concerns about potential data gathering by the Chinese government.

Deal talks had been held up after China signaled last month that it would bar TikTok’s technology from being transferred overseas. A partnership with Oracle would probably be more palatable to Beijing, which requires many foreign companies to work with local counterparts to do business in China.

For ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, the deal could determine whether his eight-year-old company becomes a globe-straddling digital colossus or is reduced to a mere power player in China, where the internet market is maturing and competition is becoming more intense.

Over the past decade, the confluence of engineering talent and commercial opportunity in China minted fortunes that only Silicon Valley’s matched. The country is still a huge market with plenty of spending power, but its economic growth has slowed. Its population of internet users, at 900 million in a country of 1.4 billion, is reaching natural limits. Ninety-nine percent of those people have smartphones on which they already spend pretty much their entire waking lives.

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Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

“For the entire Chinese internet market, there is much less room than there used to be to increase the amount of time spent by users,” said Zhang Xueru, an analyst in Shanghai with 86Research. “Growth in the digital ad market is much slower than before.”

ByteDance declined to comment.

Mr. Zhang of ByteDance believed early on that only by having an international presence could his company compete on the level of Google, Facebook or Amazon. As ByteDance grew, he encouraged employees to adopt what he called a “Martian” perspective on business. He wanted them to think of ByteDance not as a Chinese company gone global, but as an inherently planetwide enterprise, free of national starting points or biases.

Growing wariness toward China’s technological advancements has made that vision look harder to sustain, though. Never before has the United States clamped down on a Chinese company with as much cultural cachet as ByteDance. India banned TikTok in June, also on national security grounds. More European governments are shying away from using Chinese telecommunications equipment, fearful of espionage.

ByteDance’s rivals in China began discovering long ago how hard overseas expansion could be.

The internet giant Tencent is a global heavy hitter in video games through its holdings of developers including Epic Games and Riot Games. It has mostly failed, however, to export its best-known product: WeChat, the company’s Swiss Army knife of an app, which the Trump administration is also threatening to curb. India recently banned the mobile version of the shooter game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which Tencent distributes in the country.

China’s other internet behemoth, the e-commerce giant Alibaba, still makes more than 90 percent of its revenue at home despite years of investment in overseas marketplaces. Two of China’s newest tech titans — the shopping site Pinduoduo and the food delivery platform Meituan — are focused heavily on the domestic market.

“Tencent’s businesses are diversified with multiple revenue streams that we expect to generate sustained growth in the years ahead,” the company said in an emailed statement. “The China market continues to offer tremendous opportunities,” the statement said, adding that the company would continue to explore overseas expansion.

Alibaba declined to comment.

ByteDance is hardly a minnow in China. There, TikTok’s sibling app, Douyin, is beloved by advertisers and also helps carry the Communist Party’s propaganda messages. ByteDance now accounts for around one-fifth of online advertising revenue in China, a larger share than Tencent and the search engine Baidu, according to the research firm Bernstein. The country’s online ad market was worth $95 billion last year, according to iResearch.

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Credit…Thomas Suen/Reuters

Grabbing a bigger slice of the pie won’t be easy, even if ByteDance has for years been assembling an armada of other apps aimed at conquering more of China’s two-plus billion eyeballs.

Besides Douyin, it runs two other video apps, Xigua and Huoshan. Its news aggregator, Jinri Toutiao, was its first blockbuster in China and remains a major platform. It is building up its video game and music divisions. It has an e-book app, shopping apps, online learning services, a car buying site, a cloud services platform and an office productivity suite.

“ByteDance has always been very, very enamored with Amazon,” said Rui Ma, an investor and China tech analyst. It and other Chinese internet companies respect “the fact that Amazon can dominate in multiple things,” she said. “It’s also helped by the fact that Jeff Bezos is the richest man on earth.”

In China, ByteDance could still try to use Douyin, which has an estimated 300 million daily users, to herd more people toward its other products — those education apps, for instance.

“Their core user demographic spends eight to 12 hours a day on education, and there are not many large competitors with internet-first business models,” said Turner Novak, a general partner at Gelt Venture Capital who has studied ByteDance’s rise.

Video game companies are big advertisers on Douyin and TikTok, Mr. Novak noted, which suggests that ByteDance could make lots of money by advertising its own games on those platforms as well.

Conquering online retail might be trickier. ByteDance is already trying to turn Douyin into a mobile-age Home Shopping Network, a place where kindly looking people entrance viewers into buying things. Not everyone is convinced.

“E-commerce is not only about traffic,” said Shawn Yang, an analyst in Shenzhen with the investment bank Blue Lotus Capital Advisors. “E-commerce is also about service, about product quality, about logistics, payments. The whole process is very long, which means that it’s not as easy as online gaming or advertising.”

Even serving up videos that are longer than the bite-size ones that fill Douyin and TikTok might require more of ByteDance than an algorithm that intuits viewers’ tastes with uncanny accuracy.

“Netflix used to say that its recommendation technology was a core asset,” said Ms. Zhang of 86Research. “But in fact, long-form video platforms still need hits. The platforms need big shows to bring in users. So actually, recommendation technology isn’t especially important compared to content.”

For now, ByteDance may find the most success building upon what it already knows best. One path might be to use brief, punchy videos as a medium not just for entertainment, but for learning or even hiring and dating.

Eugene Wei, a tech executive and angel investor in San Francisco, has argued that short videos are uniquely suited to a recommendation engine like TikTok’s. Unlike news articles such as this one, TikTok’s user-made videos are easy to create and easy to consume, so people generate huge quantities of data about their tastes simply by using the app. ByteDance runs the data back into its systems to improve its recommendations, which keep people even more glued to the app.

The result, in Mr. Wei’s words: “a rapid, hyper-efficient matchmaker” akin to the magic Sorting Hat in “Harry Potter.”

“You need some creativity to adapt short video” to new business areas, Mr. Wei acknowledged in an interview. “But the fact that ByteDance already walked that path once means you just believe it more the next time around.”

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The Woman Taking Over TikTok at the Toughest Time

Six weeks ago, as TikTok grappled with escalating tensions between the United States and China, the social media app’s top executives huddled together to figure out their next steps.

Vanessa Pappas, 41, was worried. TikTok’s North American business, which she has run since 2018, was dealing with an uproar. President Trump had threatened to ban TikTok because of its Chinese owner, ByteDance, and many of the more than 100 million people who use TikTok in the United States were up in arms.

So in the early hours of Aug. 1, Ms. Pappas recorded a 59-second video from her home office in Los Angeles to calm the creators on TikTok and its fans. “We’ve heard your outpouring of support, and we wanted to say thank you,” she said in the video, which quickly went viral under the hashtag #SaveTikTok. “We’re not planning on going anywhere.”

Ms. Pappas is now repeating that message as she lands in an even hotter hot seat. Last month, Kevin Mayer, TikTok’s chief executive, said he was leaving the company, citing its uncertain political status. Ms. Pappas was appointed TikTok’s interim global head, just as the app faces an even murkier future.

Under an executive order from President Trump, ByteDance must essentially strike a deal to sell off TikTok’s U.S. operations by Sept. 20; it will have a few weeks after that to close a sale. Yet after weeks of negotiations with potential buyers such as Microsoft, Walmart and Oracle, the discussions were thrown into disarray when the Chinese government signaled that it would weigh in on TikTok’s future.

In a recent 30-minute interview over Zoom from her home, Ms. Pappas said TikTok’s predicament was “unique” and described what it was like to navigate it through “a challenging time.” She declined to discuss specifics about TikTok’s deal talks and said she was not involved in them.

Instead, Ms. Pappas said, she is focused on what TikTok’s future could look like if the app’s ownership is bifurcated. Most of all, she said, she is doubling down on putting TikTok’s community of creators and users — ranging from those who post videos of cake decorating to those who break dance — first. Ms. Pappas later added that she regularly talked to Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s founder and chief executive, about all of these issues.

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Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

To focus on its community, TikTok in July formed a Creator Fund, where creators can earn cash for views, starting with $200 million. And with the pandemic forcing people indoors for the foreseeable future, Ms. Pappas said she and her team were working on making TikTok an uplifting place to visit. Last month, the company launched a largest national advertising campaign on television and digital media, highlighting more than 30 popular creators under the tagline “It starts on TikTok.”

“We’ve built this product for hundreds of millions of people, and we’re not looking for that to change,” said Ms. Pappas, a former YouTube executive.

But keeping TikTok’s community happy in such a turbulent period may be challenging. Some creators and fans have been rattled by Mr. Trump’s moves against the app. Since his executive order, people in the United States have installed TikTok about 6.5 million times, down 13 percent from before the order, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm.

Competitors have also pounced. Facebook introduced Reels, a TikTok clone inside Instagram, in August. The social network has also doled out millions of dollars to some of TikTok’s biggest stars to lure them over to using Reels.

Ms. Pappas said she wasn’t worried about Facebook and Instagram Reels. “You can certainly copy a feature, but you can’t copy a community,” she said. “I think that’s really hard to replicate.”

Tom Keiser, chief executive of Hootsuite, a social media management company, said TikTok was right to make its power users a priority.

“They need to be investing in those folks,” he said. “There’s so many things out of their control, but their future growth is based on influencers and content creators continuing to evolve and grow and leverage the new capabilities TikTok is rolling out.”

Ms. Pappas has worked in the online influencer world since some of its earliest days. Half Greek by birth, she grew up in Australia and speaks with an Aussie twang. She moved to London when she was 20, and eventually migrated to New York. In 2007, she joined Next New Networks, a company that helped web video creators earn money from their efforts.

YouTube bought Next New Networks in 2011. Ms. Pappas joined YouTube and quickly rose through the ranks. She was YouTube’s first audience development lead, a role that led her to connect with video makers. Her division at YouTube developed and popularized the term “creator” and helped transform video blogging, or vlogging, into a full-time job.

Ms. Pappas also wrote a book, “The YouTube Creator Playbook,” on how creators could make money from their followings, in 2011. She went on to develop YouTube’s Creator Academy, an educational content portal that teaches creators how to build a business on YouTube, and a channel certification program, which teaches creators about digital rights management, legal issues and advanced analytics.

TikTok lured her from YouTube at the end of 2018 to be its general manager and head of North America, based in Los Angeles. At the time, TikTok had just expanded globally. It was a new challenge for Ms. Pappas, who said she had wanted to get in on the ground floor of the next big creator movement.

“It was this burgeoning community that resonated as this next evolution of what the creator meant and redefined the creators over again,” she said.

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Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Young people flocked to TikTok, which made it easy for them to create videos with a robust mobile-first suite of video editing tools. Lip-syncing videos and others soared in popularity.

Ms. Pappas said that unlike Facebook or Twitter, TikTok wasn’t wholly dependent on one’s social graph, or how many friends someone had. The app’s discovery algorithm instead surfaces popular trending content from people with followings both large and small, keeping users in the app longer and coming back more frequently.

“Anyone feels like they can be a creator,” said Greg Justice, TikTok’s head of content programming. “I’ve had friends with only a few followers who have gone viral.”

Mr. Justice, who works closely with Ms. Pappas, said that her leadership style was driven by data and that she often asked people to provide information to back up their projects and proposals. That helped the company avoid allowing dominant personalities and workplace politics dictate the way it was run, he said.

“She really democratizes the decision making and leads to more objectivity at the company,” Mr. Justice said.

The American entertainment industry soon began reorienting itself around TikTok. Top Hollywood agents, casting directors and modeling scouts scoured the app for up-and-coming stars. Brands paid millions of dollars to tap into TikTok’s coveted Gen Z audience. Thousands of TikTok creators have made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to live full time as creators.

The coronavirus has strengthened the ties among the TikTok community, Ms. Pappas said. Videos have trended under the #HappyAtHome hashtag, as creators riff off one another’s indoor experiments.

But Ms. Pappas has also had to deal with TikTok videos that are not all sunshine and rainbows. This month, a woman spoke out against TikTok for a viral meme in which thousands of users — including parents and their children — mocked people with physical disabilities across the platform.

TikTok noted that its community guidelines prohibit bullying and harassment, and encouraged its users to “exercise care and good judgment when it comes to the content they post, including parents and others who set an example through their behavior,” a spokeswoman said.

Nick Tangorra, 22, a TikTok creator with 1.2 million followers, said he had met Ms. Pappas only once but believed that she was the only tech leader who understood the creator community’s needs.

“It starts at the top,” he said. “TikTok knows fully that this app is what it is because of its creators. Vanessa is putting such an emphasis on creators, making sure we feel supported by the platform.”

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Prince Harry and Meghan Sign Megawatt Netflix Deal

LOS ANGELES — Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, having resettled in California, on Wednesday unveiled new Hollywood careers.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have founded a yet-to-be-named production company and signed a multiyear deal with Netflix, which will pay them to make documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows and children’s programming — giving the couple a global platform six months after their dramatic decampment from the House of Windsor.

Harry and Meghan may appear on camera in documentary programming. But she has repeatedly made it clear that she has no plans to return to acting, having last appeared in the cable drama “Suits,” which concluded its run in 2019. Their content will be exclusive to Netflix.

“Our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope,” the couple said in a statement. “As new parents, making inspirational family programming is also important to us.” They added that Netflix’s “unprecedented reach will help us share impactful content that unlocks action.” Netflix has 193 million subscribers worldwide.

It is unclear how much Harry and Meghan will be paid, given their lack of producing experience. A Netflix spokeswoman declined to comment.

The streaming service, however, is known for backing up Brink’s trucks when it wants to be in business with high-profile people, particularly when other entertainment companies also want their services. In recent months, Harry and Meghan have quietly talked with Disney and Apple. Variety reported earlier this month that they had met with NBCUniversal.

The couple has been living in the Los Angeles area since March, staying for a time at a Beverly Hills mansion owned by Tyler Perry. They soon filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against tabloid photographers, saying that paparazzi had flown drones overhead in an extreme effort to capture images of their son, Archie, who turned one in May. Harry, 35, and Meghan, 39, have since bought a $14.7 million home in Montecito, an affluent town located about an hour north of Malibu that is also home to Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.

“We’re incredibly proud they have chosen Netflix as their creative home and are excited about telling stories with them that can help build resilience and increase understanding for audiences everywhere,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive and chief content officer, said in a statement.

Netflix is under pressure to keep its content pipelines flowing as it competes for viewers with Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock and the traditional broadcast networks. Family programming is particularly important to Netflix, and Harry and Meghan already have an animated series in development which is focused on inspiring women. Last week, Netflix released “Rising Phoenix,” a documentary about the Paralympic Games; Harry, who founded the Invictus Games for wounded veterans, appears in the film.

Content centered on social messages — racial justice, gender equity, mental well-being, environmental stewardship has been hot in Hollywood for some time, and Netflix and Participant Media, founded by the eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, have been at the center. Participant and Netflix backed Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2019 mini-series “When They See Us,” which depicted the excruciating toll that persecution and incarceration had on the teenage boys known as the Central Park Five. In 2018, Netflix struck a deal with Barack and Michelle Obama to produce shows and films. That partnership in March yielded “Crip Camp,” a feel-good documentary about the origins of the disability rights movement that is an early favorite to win the 2021 Oscar for best nonfiction film.

Meghan and Harry, the second son of Prince Charles, abruptly announced in January that they planned to step back from their royal duties, seek financial independence and spend part of the year living in North America. It triggered the most serious crisis for the British royal family since the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, in a car crash in 1997. The news media labeled the fracas Megxit.

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Credit…Neil Munns/EPA, via Shutterstock

After emotionally charged negotiations, Queen Elizabeth II granted the couple’s wishes in return for their agreeing not to use their most exalted titles, His Royal Highness and Her Royal Highness. The couple also agreed to give up public funding — setting off a tabloid guessing game about how they would finance their lifestyle, including paying for security.

Harry and Meghan used to draw some income from the Duchy of Cornwall, a hereditary estate owned by Prince Charles, but that ended with their departure from Britain. Harry also inherited several million dollars from his late mother. Before their 2018 marriage, Meghan, then Meghan Markle, worked as an actress in “Suits.”

The couple’s production company will operate independently from their charitable foundation, which is called Archewell. The couple shut down their previous philanthropic endeavor, SussexRoyal, in March after they agreed to stop using the term “royal” for commercial or charitable activities.

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A Third of TikTok’s U.S. Users May Be 14 or Under, Raising Safety Questions

If Microsoft or another company buys TikTok before President Trump bans the Chinese-owned video app on national security grounds, it will acquire a giant community of devoted fans and a lucrative platform for selling ads.

It might be buying something else, too: a big population of users ages 14 and under. The minimum age for using TikTok is 13.

In July, TikTok classified more than a third of its 49 million daily users in the United States as being 14 years old or younger, according to internal company data and documents that were reviewed by The New York Times. While some of those users are likely to be 13 or 14, one former employee said TikTok workers had previously pointed out videos from children who appeared to be even younger that were allowed to remain online for weeks.

The number of users who TikTok believes might be younger than 13 raises questions about whether the company is doing enough to protect them. In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires internet platforms to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information on children under 13. The operators of Musical.ly, an app that was merged into TikTok in 2018, paid a $5.7 million fine last year to settle accusations from the Federal Trade Commission that it had broken those rules.

TikTok declined to comment on the user numbers. In response to questions about the safety of younger users, a company representative referred to measures such as allowing parents to control what their teenagers see on the app and how much time they can spend on it.

TikTok and its owner, the Chinese social media giant ByteDance, have been in the cross hairs of the Trump administration, which is concerned that the app could help the Chinese Communist Party obtain Americans’ private information. Mr. Trump this month indicated his support for Microsoft or another American company to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations as a way to allay the security fears.

But any deal for TikTok would require buyers to contend not just with political pressures, but also with issues that can become thorny at all social media platforms, including content guidelines, data collection practices and safety protections for children. The app’s large audience of young fans makes it a big draw for advertisers, but also invites extra scrutiny of its privacy safeguards.

TikTok asks for a birth date when users register an account. In the United States, those who say they are under 13 are allowed to use only a walled-off mode within the app in which they cannot share personal information or videos. Yet the concerns are that some under-13 users may lie to get around the age restrictions, and that the platform is not obtaining the required consent from those users’ guardians.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, recently told Wired magazine that TikTok was a “poison chalice” for any buyer, referring to its complexity.

“Being big in the social media business is no simple game,” he said.

The TikTok data seen by The Times shows that the number of daily U.S. users in July whom the company estimated to be 14 or younger — 18 million — was almost as large as the number of over-14 users, around 20 million. The rest of TikTok’s U.S. users were classified as being of unknown age.

TikTok does not rely only on users’ self-reported dates of birth to categorize them into age groups. It also estimates their ages using other methods, including facial recognition algorithms that scrutinize profile pictures and videos, said two former TikTok employees and one current employee, who declined to be identified because details of the company’s practices are confidential.

Another way TikTok estimates users’ ages, these people said, is by comparing their activity and social connections in the app against those of users whose ages have already been estimated. The company might also draw upon information about users that is bought from other sources.

In a statement, TikTok said: “As is standard practice across our industry,” the company conducts “high-level age-modeling to better understand our users and allow our safety team to better protect the safety of our younger teens in particular.”

TikTok primarily uses the classification system to inform corporate strategy, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. TikTok’s policy teams use the numbers to create rules for moderators to follow, deciding, for instance, what should be done if an underage user is communicating with an adult on the app.

One of the former employees, who left TikTok this year, said the app did not use the classifications to automatically restrict or take down videos that might be from users under 13, or to secure permission from those users’ parents or guardians.

This raises the question of whether TikTok is responsible for acting upon what it knows about those who are under 13, particularly in light of last year’s F.T.C. fine for violating the federal children’s online privacy law.

The law stipulates that if internet services have “actual knowledge” that a visitor is under 13, they have to obtain parental consent or else delete the user’s personal information. The F.T.C. said on its website that such knowledge might come, for instance, from a child’s posting information online that reveals his or her age, or from concerned parents’ notifying the platform that their young one is using it.

Critics have argued, however, that this standard creates an incentive for online platforms to willfully ignore the issue of whether their visitors are underage.

Josh Golin, the executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said TikTok had a duty to investigate if its own systems were indicating that so many users might be under 13.

“I would argue, once their systems have indicated to them that a user is likely under 13, that they are past the point where they can bury their head in the sand, that their legal obligation has kicked in,” he said.

Angela J. Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who is on the advocacy group’s board, said, “You could argue: Well, they’re not 100 percent sure” that those users are under 13. “But you’re never going to be 100 percent sure. Given that there’s that many under 14, it seems inconceivable to me that they could claim at all that they don’t know this.”

In May, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was one of 20 groups that complained to the F.T.C., saying that TikTok was flouting its agreement with the agency.

According to the data seen by The Times, TikTok’s youthful demographics in the United States are echoed in Western Europe, where the app is also popular.

In Britain, the share of daily users who were classified as 14 or younger was around 43 percent this spring, the data shows. In Germany, the share was more than 35 percent, and in France in February, it was 45 percent.

These proportions may have fallen as TikTok has grown in popularity. In June 2019, nearly half of the daily users in the United States were estimated to be 14 or younger, internal data shows. The share in Germany that month was around 40 percent.

Like the United States, the European Union requires online services to obtain parental consent for processing children’s data. The body that coordinates enforcement of the E.U.’s data protection rules announced in June that it was conducting a review of TikTok’s practices. The French and British privacy watchdogs have also said they are investigating the app.

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We Tested Instagram Reels, the TikTok Clone. What a Dud.

Millions of people have used the social media app TikTok to make and share short, fun, entertaining videos. I, Brian Chen, am not one of them.

Count me as one of those never-TikTokers. As an older millennial, I have exclusively used Facebook’s Instagram to post photos of my dog. I have never made a 15-second dance video.

But that all changed last week. That was when Facebook released a TikTok copycat called Reels, which is part of Instagram. Its introduction suddenly made making short videos a lot more interesting.

Facebook’s timing was brilliant. That’s because TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, has been under major pressure from President Trump. He has identified TikTok as a national security threat and threatened to ban the app from the United States, prompting numerous panicked TikTokers to look for alternatives.

So here was an opportunity to test Reels and compare it with TikTok. I invited Taylor Lorenz, our internet culture writer and resident TikTok expert, to share her thoughts about how Facebook’s clone worked versus the real thing. With her experience and my novice knowledge, we could assess how both the never-TikTokers and the TikTok die-hards might feel about Reels.

The verdict? For her, it was: Not good. For me, it was: Confused.

Let’s start with what was copied. Both TikTok, a stand-alone app, and Reels, a feature inside Instagram, are free to use. With Reels, Instagram mimicked TikTok’s signature ability to create short video montages, which are overlaid with copyrighted music and embellished with effects like emojis and sped-up motion.

The similarities pretty much ended there — and not in a positive way for Instagram.

On Instagram, the videos are published to a feed known as the Explore tab, a mishmash of photos, sponsored posts and long-form videos. On TikTok, videos are surfaced through For You, a feed algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit your interests. Reels also lacks TikTok’s editing features, like song recommendations and automatic clip trimming, that use artificial intelligence to speed up the process of video creation.

Taylor and I each tested Reels for five days and then talked about what we had found. We didn’t hold back.

TAYLOR I can definitively say Reels is the worst feature I’ve ever used.

BRIAN Please elaborate. As a never-TikToker, I feel that it’s probably the worst Instagram feature I’ve used, too, but your feelings seem stronger than mine.

TAYLOR It’s horrible. Not only does Reels fail in every way as a TikTok clone, but it’s confusing, frustrating and impossible to navigate. It’s like Instagram took all the current functionality on Stories (a tool to publish montages of photos and videos with added filters, text and music clips), and jammed them into a separate, new complicated interface for no reason.

To me, it’s really unclear whom this feature is for.

BRIAN Let’s walk through how to use Reels.

To open the feature, you tap the Explore button (the magnifying glass) and open someone else’s reel before hitting the camera button to start creating your own reel.

So I have to watch someone else’s video before creating my own? This is a waste of time, battery life and cell data.

TAYLOR You can also create a reel by swiping right in Instagram to enter the camera and then selecting Reels, a button next to Story. Which is confusing.

BRIAN It’s totally undiscoverable without reading instructions. But OK, you find the button to create a reel. Then you can start recording videos or add videos you’ve already recorded. Then you can overlay music and some effects like emojis and color filters. Then you write a caption and publish.

How does this compare with TikTok?

TAYLOR TikTok is better in a million ways. The main one being that TikTok removes all of the friction that normally comes with trying to make a good video.

On TikTok, you can just grab a ton of videos (like, hit select on 17 different videos of all different lengths), and dump them all into the app and hit a button. TikTok will automatically select highlights from your videos and edit them in a way to match the beat of whatever sound you choose. This makes it so easy to create a really engaging, smooth video in under 10 seconds from a ton of footage.

Here’s an example of Reels versus TikTok of the same thing. You can see which is better!

Here’s the reel:

Video

And here’s the TikTok video:

Video

Oh, wait, did Reels save without sound?

BRIAN Yeah. Instagram said that there were restrictions and that they were working with third-party rights holders to expand its features. So when you save a video to your device after posting it, the music is automatically stripped away.

What you describe about TikTok just makes Reels sound so lacking. In Reels, you have to manually select where a music track starts to ensure it’s in sync with a clip. You’re saying TikTok automatically figures that out for you?

TAYLOR In TikTok, you have a feature called “sound sync,” which everyone uses. You upload a bunch of clips, and it will reorder and trim them to match whatever sound you choose. It also suggests the best songs for each video.

BRIAN Wow, really? That’s insane.

For music on Reels, I would hit the Audio button and just type in a word that came to mind to search for relevant songs. With this video of my corgi eating bread, I typed the word “hungry” to choose “Hungry Eyes.” Then I had to trim the clips and manually synchronize a portion of the song. That took me about 10 minutes.

Take a look:

Now take a look at an example of a failed reel that I never posted. I was trying to make a montage of dog butts being scratched. After adding the music, I was able to go back and trim the second clip to be in rhythm with the music, but couldn’t go backward to trim the first clip of scratching the Doberman’s butt.

Video

Why am I able to edit the second clip but not the first clip? Instagram said it was still early days and that they were working on the ability to edit earlier clips. (Early days, my butt! They’ve been working on Reels for over a year.)

TAYLOR TikTok makes it very easy to create really entertaining short videos and makes it easy for that content to go viral. Reels makes it hard to create entertaining short videos — and even if you post them, the best you can hope for is to get a little distribution on a very crowded Explore page.

A big part of why TikToks go viral is that they can be easily downloaded and shared across platforms (with credit baked in because they’re watermarked with the handle).

Also, Reels is missing the ability to “duet” content, as you can on TikTok. Duets allow users to create side-by-side reaction videos. This is a core way users communicate and riff off each other. It’s basically the TikTok version of a quote tweet.

Finally, Reels has no “friends only” option. On TikTok, I’m able to post a video only mutual friends can see. I just want an easy way to post to my friends only.

BRIAN Right. Currently the simplest way to do that on Reels is to set your profile to friends-only so that all your posts are viewable only to friends. Otherwise, if you share a reel privately with a friend through a direct message, it acts like a Story and disappears after 24 hours. Which is confusing.

How long would you say you spent on making a TikTok versus a reel?

TAYLOR With TikTok, I can post a fun video of my day in under 15 seconds. Reels took me about five minutes.

Some people do spend an enormous amount of time editing their TikToks and making these really complicated and amazing videos. But for me, just a casual user who uses TikTok to capture fun highlights from my day-to-day life, that’s the time frame.

BRIAN As an Instagram user, I see no benefit to using Reels as opposed to Stories for posting videos. It’s extremely confusing for even us to use, which means it’s going to be much more confusing for casual tech users.

I’ll add that my followers didn’t seem impressed with Reels. The reel of my corgi, Max, eating bread got about 250 likes, down from the 300 to 400 likes that he usually gets from regular Instagram photos.

Maybe I’ll post more Reels one day if Instagram catches up with TikTok. But until then, I think you’ve persuaded me to start a TikTok.

TAYLOR I can’t see myself creating a Reel again. I might use it as a repository to re-upload my TikToks. But over all it just doesn’t have any of the video-editing ability that I’ve come to expect.

It’s also hard to find and discover other Reels. Part of why it’s so easy to be creative on TikTok is that you’re presented daily with a series of trends, memes or challenges. It makes it easy to see what other people are doing and hop on it or riff off it. I just don’t see what Reels is good for.

BRIAN That’s some reel talk.

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From Minecraft Tricks to Twitter Hack: A Florida Teen’s Troubled Online Path

For Graham Ivan Clark, the online mischief-making started early.

By the age of 10, he was playing the video game Minecraft, in part to escape what he told friends was an unhappy home life. In Minecraft, he became known as an adept scammer with an explosive temper who cheated people out of their money, several friends said.

At 15, he joined an online hackers’ forum. By 16, he had gravitated to the world of Bitcoin, appearing to involve himself in a theft of $856,000 of the cryptocurrency, though he was never charged for it, social media and legal records show. On Instagram posts afterward, he showed up with designer sneakers and a bling-encrusted Rolex.

The teenager’s digital misbehavior ended on Friday when the police arrested him at a Tampa, Fla., apartment. Florida prosecutors said Mr. Clark, now 17, was the “mastermind” of a prominent hack last month, accusing him of tricking his way into Twitter’s systems and taking over the accounts of some of the world’s most famous people, including Barack Obama, Kanye West and Jeff Bezos.

His arrest raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defenses of what was supposedly one of Silicon Valley’s most sophisticated technology companies. Mr. Clark, who prosecutors said worked with at least two others to hack Twitter but was the leader, is being charged as an adult with 30 felonies.

Millions of teenagers play the same video games and interact in the same online forums as Mr. Clark. But what emerges in interviews with more than a dozen people who know him, along with legal documents, online forensic work and social media archives, is a picture of a youth who had a strained relationship with his family and who spent much of his life online becoming skilled at convincing people to give him money, photos and information.

“He scammed me for a little bit of money when I was just a kid,” said Colby Meeds, 19, a Minecraft player who said Mr. Clark stole $50 from him in 2016 by offering to sell him a digital cape for a Minecraft character but not delivering it.

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Reached via a brief video call on Sunday from the Hillsborough County Jail in Tampa, Mr. Clark appeared in a black sleeveless shirt, his hair tumbling into his eyes. “What are your questions?” he asked, before pushing back his chair and hanging up. He is scheduled for a virtual court appearance on Tuesday.

Mr. Clark and his sister grew up in Tampa with their mother, Emiliya Clark, a Russian immigrant who holds certifications to work as a facialist and as a real estate broker. Reached at her home, his mother declined to comment. His father lives in Indiana, according to public documents; he did not return a request for comment. His parents divorced when he was 7.

Mr. Clark doted on his dog and didn’t like school or have many friends, said James Xio, who met Mr. Clark online several years ago. He had a habit of moving between emotional extremes, flying off the handle over small transgressions, Mr. Xio said.

“He’d get mad mad,” said Mr. Xio, 18. “He had a thin patience.”

Abishek Patel, 19, who played Minecraft with Mr. Clark, defended him. “He has a good heart and always looks out for the people who he cares about,” he said.

In 2016, Mr. Clark set up a YouTube channel, according to the social media monitoring firm SocialBlade. He built an audience of thousands of fans and became known for playing a violent version of Minecraft called Hardcore Factions, under user names like “Open” and “OpenHCF.”

But he became even better known for taking money from other Minecraft players. People can pay for upgrades with the game, like accessories for their characters.

One tactic used by Mr. Clark was appearing to sell desirable user names for Minecraft and then not actually providing the buyer with that user name. He also offered to sell the capes for Minecraft characters, but sometimes vanished after other players sent him money.

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Mr. Clark once offered to sell his own Minecraft user name, “Open,” said Nick Jerome, 21, a student at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. The two messaged over Skype and Mr. Jerome, who was then 17, said he sent about $100 for the user name because he thought it was cool. Then Mr. Clark blocked him.

“I was just kind of a dumb teenager, and looking back, there’s no way I should have ever done this,” Mr. Jerome said. “Why should I ever have trusted this dude?”

In late 2016 and early 2017, other Minecraft players produced videos on YouTube describing how they had lost money or faced online attacks after brushes with Mr. Clark’s alias “Open.” In some of those videos, Mr. Clark, who can be heard using racist and sexist epithets, also talked about being home schooled while making $5,000 a month from his Minecraft activities.

Mr. Clark’s real identity rarely showed up online. At one point, he revealed his face and gaming setup online, and some players called him Graham. His name was also mentioned in a 2017 Twitter post.

Mr. Clark’s interests soon expanded to the video game Fortnite and the lucrative world of cryptocurrencies. He joined an online forum for hackers, known as OGUsers, and used the screen name Graham$. His OGUsers account was registered from the same internet protocol address in Tampa that had been attached to his Minecraft accounts, according to research done for The Times by the online forensics firm Echosec.

Mr. Clark described himself on OGUsers as a “full time crypto trader dropout” and said he was “focused on just making money all around for everyone.” Graham$ was later banned from the community, according to posts uncovered by Echosec, after the moderators said he failed to pay Bitcoin to another user who had already sent him money to complete a transaction.

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Credit…Octavio Jones for The New York Times

Still, Mr. Clark had already harnessed OGUsers to find his way into a hacker community known for taking over people’s phone numbers to access all of the online accounts attached to the numbers, an attack known as SIM swapping. The main goal was to drain victims’ cryptocurrency accounts.

In 2019, hackers remotely seized control of the phone of Gregg Bennett, a tech investor in the Seattle area. Within a few minutes, they had secured Mr. Bennett’s online accounts, including his Amazon and email accounts, as well as 164 Bitcoins that were worth $856,000 at the time and would be worth $1.8 million today.

Mr. Bennett soon received an extortion note, which he shared with The Times. It was signed by Scrim, another of Mr. Clark’s online aliases, according to several of his online friends.

“We just want the remainder of the funds in the Bittrex,” Scrim wrote, referring to the Bitcoin exchange from which the coins had been taken. “We are always one step ahead and this is your easiest option.”

In April, the Secret Service seized 100 Bitcoins from Mr. Clark, according to government forfeiture documents. A few weeks later, Mr. Bennett received a letter from the Secret Service saying they had recovered 100 of his Bitcoins, citing the same code that was assigned to the coins seized from Mr. Clark.

It is unclear whether other people were involved in the incident or what happened to the remaining 64 Bitcoins.

Mr. Bennett said in an interview that a Secret Service agent told him that the person with the stolen Bitcoins was not arrested because he was a minor. The Secret Service did not respond to a request for comment.

By then, Mr. Clark was living in his own apartment in a Tampa condo complex. He had an expensive gaming setup, a balcony and a view of a grassy park, according to friends and social media posts.

Two neighbors said that Mr. Clark kept to himself, coming and going at unusual hours and driving a white BMW 3 Series.

On an Instagram account that has since been taken down, @error, Mr. Clark also shared videos of himself swaying to rap music in designer sneakers. He was given a shout-out on Instagram by a jeweler to the hip-hop elite, with a picture showing that Mr. Clark, as @error, had purchased a gem-encrusted Rolex.

Mr. Xio, who became close friends with Mr. Clark, said the April run-in with the Secret Service shook Mr. Clark.

“He knew he was given a second chance,” Mr. Xio said. “And he wanted to work on being as legit as possible.”

But less than two weeks after the Secret Service seizure, prosecutors said Mr. Clark began working to get inside Twitter. According to a government affidavit, Mr. Clark convinced a “Twitter employee that he was a co-worker in the IT department and had the employee provide credentials to access the customer service portal.”

For help, Mr. Clark found accomplices on OGUsers, according to the charging documents. The accomplices offered to broker the sale of Twitter accounts that had cool user names, like @w, while Mr. Clark would enter Twitter’s systems and change ownership of the accounts, according to the filings and accounts from the accomplices.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The hack unfolded on July 15. A few days later, one accomplice, who went by the name “lol,” told The Times that the person they knew as the mastermind began cheating the customers who wanted to covertly buy the Twitter accounts. The hacker took the money and handed over the account, but then quickly reclaimed it by using his access to Twitter’s systems to boot out the client. It was reminiscent of what Mr. Clark had done earlier on Minecraft.

When Mr. Clark’s online acquaintances learned he had been charged with the hack, several said they were not surprised.

“He never really seemed to care about anyone but himself,” said Connor Belcher, a gamer known as @iMakeMcVidz who had previously teamed up on a separate YouTube channel with Mr. Clark before becoming one of his online critics.

Susan Jacobson contributed reporting from Tampa, Fla. Sheelagh McNeil and Jack Begg contributed research.