Fame has often been described as a double-edged sword, with a delicate balance of pros and cons, joys and woes, that can seduce and baffle in equal measure. For TikTok, popularity proves to be a formidable challenge, which threatens to plunge the company from its all-time peak.
The video-sharing application, which rose to worldwide fame during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and has since become a tech giant as powerful as the titans of Silicon Valley, is receiving increasing attention from lawmakers, politicians and journalists from all over the world, concerned about the unwanted side effects of his astonishing rise.
This week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew traveled to the Belgian capital to high-level meetings with several European commissioners, including Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president who oversees the digital agenda of the Union, and Didier Reynders, head of the justice portfolio.
The meetings, a European Commission spokesman told Euronews, took place “at the request of the company” and focused on the obligations that will arise from the European Union’s newest set of twin regulations, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).
Western regulators suspect that TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing, is putting people’s sensitive data into the hands of the Chinese government and exploiting its content recommendation algorithm to spread communist propaganda.
While the company has vigorously attempted to counter these claims, an unbroken string of media revelations continues to fuel criticism, pushing TikTok into the realm of national security.
From Washington to Brussels, politicians are debating how to tackle this wildly popular app, which, for now, runs nearly unhindered across the West.
During their meeting on Tuesday, Ms Vestager and Mr Chew discussed privacy and data transfers “referring to recent reports of aggressive data collection and surveillance” in the United States.
“We are aware of the concerns related to the use of TikTok”the spokesman noted.
“Zero demand” from China
Visit to Brussels comes as TikTok picks up speed his work in order to reach a historic agreement with US regulators, which will prove that user data is not subject to interference from China. If TikTok fails to deliver on this vital assurance, President Joe Biden’s administration could decide to ban the site outright or order a divestment from ByteDance.
The US Congress approved it last month a measure trying to bar TikTok from electronic devices used by the federal government, as Republican Senator Marco Rubio has proposed a draft law bipartisan campaign to ban TikTok nationwide, a sweeping move that India took over two years ago by invoking data compilation by “elements hostile to national security”.
Neither TikTok nor ByteDance responded to requests for comment sent by Euronews.
In the previous statements To the media, TikTok has defended its independence from the Chinese government and insisted that its data collection practices meet industry standards.
“Since the transparency reports began in 2019, we have not received any requests for data from the Chinese government”a TikTok spokesperson told the Guardian.
But despite a flurry of statements, high-profile meetings, public awareness actions and intense lobbying, concerns about privacy and espionage persist on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the an update on privacy protection published in early November, TikTok promised new efforts to minimize data flows outside Europe and store data locally. Data from TikTok users in Europe, covering the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and the UK, is currently stored in the US and Singapore.
However, in the same privacy update, TikTok said that due to the need to operate a “global platform designed for sharing joyful content”some company employees in countries outside the continent would be granted “remote access” to European user data.
The list of these ten countries includes China.
It will be the employees who manage this data, explains the company, “based on a proven need to do the job, subject to a robust set of security controls and approval protocols”as well as through methods compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union.
The official admission that China-based employees will have access to European data grabbed international headlines and amplified long-standing concerns about ByteDance and the Communist Party of China.
“Regarding the issue of TikTok’s data processing practices, we obviously expect all companies operating in the EU to fully comply with EU data protection rules,” a European Commission spokesman told Euronews.
“It would be a big mistake to let that happen”
As a social network, TikTok collects all kinds of data from its more than 1 billion users, which can cover content consumption, favorite categories, approximate location, and IP address. This information is essential to fuel the algorithm that powers the app and offers countless video recommendations.
In the midst of a geopolitical confrontation between the West and China, the risk of this valuable and sensitive user data falling into the hands of the Communist Party of China has inevitably become a growing source of anxiety for Europeans and Americans.
Technology has been a major factor fueling diplomatic tensions for years: Shenzhen-based telecommunications giant Huawei saw its market opportunities dwindle after Western countries began deepening ties with the company with the Chinese government.
These suspicions have led countries such as Sweden, Poland, Romania, Japan and Australia to prevent the company from rolling out 5G networks and building critical infrastructure. The US even banned it the sale and import of new communications equipment manufactured by Huawei, ZTE and three other Chinese companies.
A similar pattern of distrust emerges with TikTok, which has more appeal and emotional attachment among the younger population than any other Chinese society.
Concerns date back to 2017, when the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping, accused by critics of tightening authoritarian screws inside the country, issued a new law which stipulated that “all organizations and citizens must support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts.”
The National Intelligence Law may compel Chinese companies and their subsidiaries operating “at home and abroad” to hand over data to the Chinese government, if he asks.
Once TikTok proved more than a fad, the political spotlight turned to its growing cache of personal data and the looming shadow of the Communist Party.
In September 2021The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has launched an investigation into TikTok’s transfers of personal data from Europe to China and GDPR compliance.
Like many other tech companies, TikTok has established its European headquarters in Dublin, which makes it the Irish body responsible for enforcing the provisions of the GDPR. The GDPR allows national authorities to impose heavy fines for non-compliance and to require changes to company policy.
A final conclusion can be expected in the second half of this year, an Irish spokesman told Euronews.
“Everything is seen in China”
As TikTok awaits conclusions from European and US regulators, a spate of media reports has added a new sense of urgency to the political conversation.
In June 2022, BuzzFeed revealed audio leaks from internal meetings showing that China-based ByteDance employees “repeatedly” accessed non-public data of US users, which contradicts the sworn testimony of a TikTok executive before the US Senate.
“Everything is seen in China”, Reportedly a member of TikTok’s “Trust and Safety” department.
Following the BuzzFeed report, a panel of five MEPs sent a letter to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to express her fears that a “gigantic” amount of data of European citizens could be captured by the Chinese authorities.
“It would be a grave mistake to allow things to happen in this period of geopolitical repositioning for the European Union and its Western allies”wrote the five far-right lawmakers.
In his written responseMs von der Leyen said that under the GDPR, any company based in the EU “must ensure that the level of data protection offered in the EU is not compromised” through data transfers to countries outside the 27 block. This provision, the head of the Commission noted, also applies to access to data “by the public authorities of the country of destination.”
A few weeks later, Forbes reported that TiKTok spied on several reporters covering ByteDance by matching their location information with that of workers it believed were acting as classified sources. The hack, which targeted the author of the BuzzFeed report, has not produced concrete results.
The company condemned the breach and admitted that personal data and IP addresses were breached by four ByteDance employees, two based in the United States and two based in China, who were subsequently fired after a internal investigation It was conducted.
“The public trust we have worked so hard to build will be significantly shaken by the misbehavior of some individuals.”wrote Rubo Liang, CEO of ByteDance, in an email to employees.
“I think this situation will serve as a lesson for all of us.”