Explained | European Commission bans Tiktok on staff devices

TikTok has largely evaded European Union efforts to rein in its tech industry in accordance with their laws. But now the European Commission has banned TikTok from its staff devices

March 01, 2023 12:34 pm | Updated 12:34 pm IST

File photo: A visitor passes the TikTok exhibition stands at the Gamescom computer gaming fair in Cologne, Germany, Aug. 25, 2022.  (Image for representation)

File photo: A visitor passes the TikTok exhibition stands at the Gamescom computer gaming fair in Cologne, Germany, Aug. 25, 2022. (Image for representation) | Photo Credit: Martin Meissner

The story so far: The European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the European Union (EU), on February 23 banned popular social media platform TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, from the official devices of its staff amid concerns over data security. The Commission has claimed that the move is aimed at enhancing its cybersecurity and protecting it against cyber-attacks. The ban would also mean that the staff can’t use TikTok on personal devices that have access to EU email and other communication apps.

TikTok has called the move “un-European” and said that the Commission had not reached out to the company regarding any concerns. The ban came amid increasing scrutiny of the video app by several countries, particularly over fears of its connection to the Chinese government.

Why did the ban happen ?

The European Commission said that the move to ban TikTok was mainly to protect it from cybersecurity threats and was in line with its cybersecurity policies.

“This measure aims to protect the Commission against cybersecurity threats and actions which may be exploited for cyber-attacks against the corporate environment of the Commission. The security developments of other social media platforms will also be kept under constant review,” it said in a statement on February 23, 2023.

Further, the EC set a deadline of March 15 for all its staff to remove the app from their devices, urging them to do so as soon as possible, according to news reports. The ban would affect nearly 32,000 permanent and contract employees working for the Commission, official figures showed.

The EU has, in the past, slapped penalties on U.S. tech giants such as Google and Meta’s Facebook and WhatApp for their non-compliance with digital laws, but has largely remained silent on TikTok. 

However, some officials within the EU and in the European Parliament have raised concerns regarding the data collection and handling policies of the company in the recent past.

In November 2022, TikTok revealed that while European user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, it could be accessed by some of its employees in China and a few other countries.

“Based on a demonstrated need to do their job, subject to a series of robust security controls and approval protocols, and by way of methods that are recognised under the GDPR, we allow certain employees within our corporate group located in Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States remote access to TikTok European user data. Our security controls include system access controls, encryption and network security,” the company said. However, it also said that the Chinese government has no access to or control over the data.

In January 2023, European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a video call that the company would be banned across the EU if it fails to comply with the Digital Services Act (DSA), the set of rules managing the bloc’s digital space, by September 1, 2023, Reuters reported.

Pressure also mounted on TikTok after its parent company ByteDance said in December 2022 that the location data of two journalists were improperly accessed by some of its employees to investigate a leak of company information earlier in 2022.

TikTok alleges ‘lack of transparency’

Meanwhile, in response to the ban, TikTok said that the Commission failed to reach out about any concerns before the ban.

“So we are really operating under a cloud. And the lack of transparency and the lack of due process. Quite frankly one would expect some sort of engagement on this matter,” Reuters quoted TikTok’s director of public policy and government relations Caroline Greer as saying on February 24.

Earlier too, the company criticised the decision as “un-European”. Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice president of European public policy, said, “They (EC) never gave us any impression that this was something that was being considered… Not to be told what the process is, it feels un-European.” in a Bloomberg report.

On February 17, 2023 the company announced that over 150 million people use the platform every month across 32 countries in Europe. It also said that it plans to open two more data centres in Europe for storing European user data locally and minimising the data flow outside the region.

Mounting bans

TikTok announced that it had over a billion active monthly users in September 2021 and is one of the Big Five worldwide social media networks at present, according to Insider Intelligence. But its growing popularity has not allayed data security concerns and accusations of spying for China.

In December 2022, the United States Congress passed a bill to ban the app from devices owned by the federal government, impacting over four million users working for the U.S. federal government. The same year, Republican senator Marco Rubio introduced bipartisan legislation to ban all operations of the company in the U.S. Earlier, Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had also raised national security concerns about the use of TikTok during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

Per a CNN analysis, 32 U.S. states have restricted the use of the platform on state-issued devices Much of the concern in the U.S. is overthe possibility of the Chinese government obtaining American user data via the app.

Two legislations in China, the 2017 National Intelligence Law and a counter-espionage law in 2014, mandate that individuals and companies in China comply with the Chinese government’s request for data for intelligence work, according to several news reports. Similar concerns were also behind the U.S. banning Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei in 2019.

India banned TikTok entirely along with several other Chinese apps in June 2020 citing national security concerns, after the Galwan valley border clash with China in which at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

On February 23, privacy regulators in Canada launched a probe into TikTok over its collection of personal information and compliance with Canadian privacy legislations. Public authorities in the Netherlands have been advised against using TikTok, and earlier this month the Dutch government ordered a study on the risks of using the app in government phones, Politico reported.

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