Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Opinion

EU regulators have a bigger bird to fry than Twitter. It's TikTok

  • A potential ban of TikTok in Europe won't be the end of the world
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Twitter Inc. seems a shambles lately. From the negligent layoffs of key personnel to the amateurish implementation of the Twitter Blue subscription, the platform has given a nervous strain to users and investors alike.

Elon Musk's tweet barrages have also raised eyebrows, even though they must be seen as what they are — intentional click generators which amplify engagement on the platform.

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  • By next year, about 250 million Europeans will have installed TikTok. In 2021, TikTok was the most downloaded app in the European Union. By comparison, Twitter has less than 50 million users in Europe (Photo: Tom Raftery)

Musk's attention-seeking bravado has certainly caught the eye of high-level EU executives. The Commissioner for Internal market Thierry Breton issued a warning that 'the bird will fly according to European rules', a reference to the economic bloc's nascent Digital Services Act (DSA). Prominent media outlets have also weighed in to hype up an imminent confrontation between Twitter and the EU's digital watchdogs.

Of course, Twitter must be held accountable for violations of the digital rulebook.

At present, there are at least half a dozen active investigations against the company for potential privacy breaches.

There is much to be desired by the Twitters and Metas out there when it comes to content moderation and curbing disinformation online.

However, EU regulators and the general public should be wary of fixating on Musk alone, while another app is silently growing its presence and causing substantially more harm in Europe.

TikTok operates within the EU under the veil of benign entertainment and cute videos. What is little understood, however, is that the app is owned by a Chinese tech company (ByteDance) which has a complicated relationship with the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Numerous reports and journalistic investigations cast heavy doubts about the way TikTok stores and handles user data, as well as the blurred lines between Chinese authorities and ByteDance employees.

Ominously, TikTok confirmed in a recent statement that certain employees within our corporate group located in China have remote access to TikTok European user data.

We're not talking only about Chinese apparatchiks snooping through your pics but also about the app having potential access to unposted information and the additional content of your phone.

It is not surprising that the US Army banned TikTok on government phones. Numerous American states have also restricted the use of the Chinese app among state employees due to national security concerns.

Abuse of personal data and private insights are only part of the problem.

Five times bigger than Twitter

By next year, about 250 million Europeans will have installed TikTok after a massive increase of the app's appeal. In 2021, TikTok was the most downloaded app in the European Union.

As an interesting point of comparison, Twitter has less than 50 million users in the EU with most populous country Germany having below 8 million subscribers. Most worryingly, we know that the majority of TikTok's users are below the age of 29 and a third of them are aged between 13 and 19.

In a nutshell, we have more than 100 million young Europeans who are using an app that snoops on personal data, relays information to Beijing and has direct control over what users see in their feeds. As confirmed by FBI director Christopher Wray, the Chinese government and their proxies in TikTok have 'the ability to control the recommendation algorithm' and 'manipulate content'.

The European Commission has already confirmed that that there are several ongoing investigations into TikTok's questionable data practices and advertisement targeted at minors.

Most of these cases will be considered by the Irish Data Protection Commission. The Irish DPC, however, has become notorious for its potential mishandling of cases, sluggish operations and even conflict of interests due to Ireland's 'special' role in hosting tech giants within its jurisdiction. We can only expect that the TikTok proceedings will repeat the same preferential treatment of other Big Tech mammoths — years of protracted investigation and a slap on the wrist with a meagre fine.

The EU needs to openly confront TikTok on its malign practices and demand sufficient safeguards for European users.

The novel EU Digital Services Act provides the nuclear option of temporary suspension of "rogue platforms refusing to comply with important obligations". ByteDance must be aware that a ban of TikTok is on the cards if they continue with the same malicious practices.

Suspending TikTok will be much to the chagrin of influencers and some of its users but don't expect riots on the streets. In 2021, India officially banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps due to privacy and national security concerns.

Since then, its population of 1.4 billion people has quickly forgotten about it and pivoted to other homegrown video platforms. A potential ban of TikTok in Europe won't be the end of the world.

Yes, TikTok is about videos and fun. But it's also the perfect veneer for external influence and surveillance, especially of a younger and more vulnerable audience.

The EU needs to have a better arsenal to oppose such digital threats.

Author bio

Dimitar Lilkov is senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official think tank of the European People's Party.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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