Chew met with European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager and Vice President Vëra Jourová, as well as Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johannson, and Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. He is scheduled to have a further video-meeting with Thierry Breton, commissioner for internal market, on January 19, to discuss TikTok and its place in the European Union (EU).
Jourová and Chew discussed the protection of data of Europeans, child safety and the spread of Russian disinformation on the platform, and the transparency of paid political content.
Following the meeting, Jourová, vice president for values and transparency, Tweeted:
I count on #TikTok to fully execute its commitments to go the extra mile in respecting EU law and regaining trust of European regulators.
There cannot be any doubt that data of users in Europe are safe and not exposed to illegal access from third-country authorities. pic.twitter.com/csKdCSOeMi
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) January 10, 2023
In another Tweet, she warned that “TikTok and other platforms” had to get ready to comply with the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA), adding that, “[t]ransparency will be key.”
The DSA and DMA are new rules coming into play across the EU that aim to create a safer digital space. The DSA aims to create a safer digital space in order to protect digital services’ users’ rights, while the DMA aims to establish a level playing field to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness in the European Single Market and globally. Both the DSA and DMA have come into force, but will be becoming fully applicable over the next year.
In her meeting, the Commission’s Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said that discussions were focussed on those upcoming acts. According to a readout of the meeting, she also brought up the reports of TikTok’s “aggressive data harvesting and surveillance in the US.”
Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders insisted on TikTok’s compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) act, and their need to cooperate with Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) which has two ongoing investigations into TikTok.
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The first inquiry is examining age verification measures for users under 13, and platform settings for users under 18. It will also examine whether TikTok has complied with the GDPR’s transparency obligations in processing personal data for users under 18.
The second inquiry will focus on transfers by TikTok of personal data to China and TikTok’s compliance with the GDPR’s requirements for transfers of personal data to third countries.
The investigation was launched in September 2021, and the DPC submitted a draft decision in September 2022. The same month, Meta also faced a €405 million fine for publicly disclosing the email address and phone numbers of children using the Instagram business account feature, and for setting teen users’ profiles as “public” by default.
The EU has famously strict data protection laws, which are only set to get stricter. TikTok is not the first social media company to receive a slap on the wrist, as Meta paid €687 million in GDPR-related fines in 2022 alone. However, governments have much graver concerns about TikTok.
TikTok belongs to parent company ByteDance in China. It was launched in 2016 locally as Douyin, and the international version, TikTok, hit markets the following year. The app had a billion users in 2022, and is immensely popular among younger generations: In 2022, children and teenagers aged 10-19 accounted for 32.5% of TikTok users in the US while young adults aged 20-29 made up 29.5%.
To make things worse, TikTok also wrestles with immense distrust. Shortly before Christmas, the US government banned the app on federal devices, after ByteDance admitted to using TikTok to track the physical movements of journalists in order to identify a leak in the company.
In his meeting with Jerová, Chew confirmed it was “wrong” and that the people responsible do not work for TikTok any longer.
Leaked recordings of TikTok internal meetings, acquired by BuzzFeed in June, revealed situations where American employees were unable to access data from users in the US without going through the Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Despite TikTok maintaining that it does not work with the Chinese government, concerns remain that the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party could compel the app to hand over information it has on European users.
However, even if European data collected by TikTok was secured in the EU, the Chinese government would be as able to procure this information from data brokers. Data brokers often compile publicly available user data, or buy huge amounts of user data from ad companies. These companies are very common, and several even have contracts with the US government, who employ them for fraud prevention and identity verification.
Social media’s role in war isn’t particularly new, with Facebook often being accredited as having had a large role in the 2011 Arab Spring. A “TikTok war,” on the other hand, isn’t precedented, and is how many are now describing the Russio-Ukrainain war due to the accounts of Ukrainian civilians co-existing with traditional photojournalism.
But this doesn’t mean social media hasn’t also been significant for Russia during this war. In 2014, Russia created a large number of fake user accounts online to push disinformation about their annexation of Crimea. They have been employing similar tactics since 2022.
Analysts from the Israeli tech company, Cyabra, found an 11,000% increase in anti-Ukrainian Twitter posts across the internet just days before the initial invasion. Cyabra believes that a significant number of these posts are inauthentic and controlled by groups associated with the Russian government. Apart from Twitter, this propaganda has come in the form of humorous TikTok videos.
On Tuesday, European Commissioners appreciated that TikTok joined the Code of Practice on Disinformation, and swiftly implemented EU sanctions against Russian propaganda outlets.
Despite the very real security concerns, TikTok is beloved by young people, who mostly experience it according to Chew’s mission of creativity and joy, despite its darker political undertones. For this reason, totally banning the app could be a very unpopular decision for a politician to make. Nevertheless, as suspicion of the app grows on both sides of the Atlantic, Chew has his work cut out if he plans to rebuild trust and retain his audience in the US and in Europe.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Phone with TikTok logo. Featured Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa.