China concerns prompt yet more TikTok bans

In Ireland, the National Cyber Security Centre is currently conducting a review of the platform

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew. Photo: Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg

Adrian Weckler

TikTok is facing increasing bans in European state bodies, as well as an outright prohibition in the US.

This week, the BBC became the first major English-language broadcasting firm to ask staff to remove TikTok from company devices.

The move comes after the UK government, Belgian government, US government and European Commission banned the social media platform from staff smartphones. They join countries such as Canada and New Zealand in the clampdown, with the British government saying the ban represented “good security hygiene”.

In Ireland, the National Cyber Security Centre is currently conducting a review of TikTok to brief the justice minister on whether it should be taken off government devices. As reported previously in the Irish Independent, that review has involved direct talks with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon.

This comes as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to address US politicians about a potential ban, arguing that the company has done nothing wrong and has spent $1.5bn (€1.4bn) on US data processes to try and assuage concerns over Chinese state access to its algorithms or user data.

Mr Chew said that TikTok now has more than 150m active monthly US users, up from 100m in 2020.

While TikTok’s Chinese parent firm, Bytedance, has repeatedly denied any access or influence from authorities in Beijing over the social media firm’s data gathering processes or algorithms, some western governments remain unconvinced.

Officials in the US and some EU countries say that a lack of Chinese government transparency over access to company data remains a legitimate cause for concern among western administrations and organisations with sensitive data held on smartphones.

Two weeks ago, TikTok’s most senior European policy director, Theo Bertram, told the Irish Independent that it is “sensible” for the Irish National Cyber Security Centre to vet the security of the popular social media platform.

However, he insisted that the company has been “caught up” in geopolitics.

“We can't change the geopolitics between the US and China, and we get caught up in that,” he said. “I think that's often because there's a misperception about our ownership or structure. We’re sometimes a proxy, a political football. And it's a lot easier to give us a kicking.”

The Irish DPC currently has two investigations into TikTok in process, including a probe into whether data is being improperly sent to China, home of TikTok’s parent firm, Bytedance. Commissioner Helen Dixon said that a draft decision on the investigation is expected in the coming months.

GDPR law places restrictions on the transfer of personal data from the EU to regimes that do not protect privacy to the same standard as the EU.

Mr Bertram said that current activity around potential bans would not affect the company’s 3,000 jobs in Ireland, or the development of a second data centre here.

TikTok, which is the most-used social media app among Irish teenagers, came under fire last year for unlawfully accessing US user data from China, something it said it does not normally do.

TikTok is headquartered in Singapore, while its parent company, Bytedance, has its global head office in Beijing. However, executives insist that the social media platform operates an entirely different structure to its Chinese sibling.

Mr Bertram described accusations of TikTok being Chinese as a “myth” that feeds “geopolitical” hostility.

“I think that people do have serious concerns about the Chinese government, the Chinese state, the actions it has taken on human rights and its general engagement with the world,” he said. “But we're not Chinese. We're a global private company.”