TikTok, the Chinese social media platform that allows users to share short videos, became available globally in 2018, and has more than 1 billion users worldwide. Despite its success, the company is facing multiplying risks around safeguarding, GDPR compliance and data privacy that are proving difficult to manage.
At a geopolitical level, TikTok is emblematic of ongoing tensions between the US and China. Whether accusations of China using TikTok to potentially spy on Western users and claims that it is an arm of the Chinese government are justified or not, it reflects bigger concerns in regard to the social media giant’s compliance and reputational issues.
Since 2020, there have been calls by US lawmakers to ban the platform, and in 2022, the UK-based Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued TikTok a £12.7 million fine for failing to protect children’s privacy. Such reputational and financial threats have elevated TikTok’s challenges into an existential problem.
In the US, calls for banning TikTok first emerged under President Donald Trump’s administration and last year, President Joe Biden’s administration continued to express concerns about the platform’s data security protocols. So far, no steps have been taken to ban the app under Biden, but the US government has reportedly been in talks with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to address concerns.
The ICO issued the fine in accordance with the UK’s GDPR law, claiming TikTok failed to obtain parental consent for children under 13 when providing services, failed to provide clear information about data use, and failed to process UK user data lawfully, fairly and transparently. Originally, the fine was £27 million, but this was reduced when, after considering TikTok’s representations, the ICO decided not to pursue the provisional finding that TikTok processed children’s data without legal grounds to do so. To date, TikTok has not paid the fine and has said it is “considering its options”, which may include an appeal or a settlement with the ICO.
The US and UK are not alone in attempts to restrict TikTok’s activities or impose serious financial penalties. Between 2020 and 2022, India banned TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese apps, over national security concerns. While the ban has been lifted, this year, the Indian government ordered the removal of more than 600 videos that were deemed to violate local laws.
Similarly, Indonesia and Pakistan banned TikTok for violating local laws in 2020. In Indonesia, the ban was lifted when TikTok agreed to comply with local laws, while in Pakistan, the ban was lifted in 2021, but the Pakistani government ordered the removal of 100 videos.
In 2022, Brazil fined TikTok USD $2 million for collecting and storing user data without consent. Again, this fine remains unpaid and Brazil is now investigating TikTok over child safety concerns. Meanwhile, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner warned users about cyberbullying, privacy concerns and addiction risks associated with TikTok, and said the app was not doing enough to protect users.It is unclear what the long-term future holds for TikTok, but as more countries flag safety and security concerns, impose fines, ban the app, and demand the removal of videos, the company may be forced to make major changes to its business practices. However, while scrutiny across multiple countries increases, the app continues to grow in popularity – in 2022, Statistica estimated it gains an average of 100 million new users each month.
Courtesy of Georgia Lewis
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