TikTok’s most senior policy official for Europe says that there is no imminent threat to 3,000 Irish jobs from the current wave of bans that the app is facing in European institutions.
TikTok’s most senior European policy official has said that the company’s 3,000 Irish jobs are not under threat from a wave of bans and restrictions on European institutional smart devices.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, TikTok’s vice president for government relations and public policy in Europe, Theo Bertram, also said that it is “sensible” for the Irish National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to vet the security of the popular social media platform.
On Tuesday, the Irish Independent revealed that the NCSC’s cyber chief will hold discussions with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner on the safety of using TikTok.
The move comes after the European Commission banned the social media app on staff phones, prompting Justice Minister Simon Harris to seek a formal security review.
In the US, TikTok has been banned on all federal government phones, with over 20 individual states also banning it on the devices of local officials. Canada has recently followed suit for government-issued smartphones. India banned the app several years ago, with a number of other countries are currently considering doing the same.
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.
“Dublin is the tech centre of Europe, and we’re the fastest growing business,” he said. “That's not going to change. We're confident about our business. And we're confident that Dublin is going to be our home in Dublin in Europe as well.”
He said that TikTok “doesn’t know why” the European Commission announced the TikTok ban on staff devices.
“It caught us completely by surprise,” he said. “They never reached out to us. We've actually had really good conversations with the European Commission. We're a part of all of their voluntary codes as well as complying with all of the rules. So we got a surprise by that.”
He said 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.
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 against it in some Western countries.
“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. Our founder [Zhang Yiming] was Chinese but we can't change that. No one on our board is a member of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. Our CEO [Shou Zi Chew] is often wrongly described as a Chinese national, but he’s a Singaporean who spent most of his early life in the UK and the US. Liang Rubo [CEO of TikTok parent Bytedance] is based in Singapore, not China. It’s a similar story for others in the leadership team, including Cormac Keenan, who leads the global trust and safety team based in Dublin.”
He denied that Chinese authorities have a ‘golden share’ in the social media platform, saying that Beijing’s mandatory stake in a Chinese subsidiary of TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, is not the same as a role in TikTok’s structure or activity.
“The ownership structure of the company is that we're 60pc owned by major investors based mostly in the US. We’re 20pc owned by global employees, including thousands in Ireland, and 20pc owned by the founders.”
Mr Betram said that the fear being expressed by some policymakers in the US and Europe, that Chinese authorities could illicitly gain access to private data here or attempt to influence public opinion through manipulation of algorithms, is misguided.
“There is no connection,” he said of TikTok’s operations and Chinese state officials.
“There is no access. I know that there is this concern around whether the Chinese government could somehow access data through the front door or the back door. But I think we've shown that it's just not possible.”
He cited TikTok’s arrangement with Oracle, where the company is granting access to its source code to Oracle in the US to try to assure authorities there that it is above interference from Chinese government officials.
“If you look at that arrangement, all of the user data is held by Oracle. Therefore, it's not accessible except with their approval.”
Asked whether he believes any of the criticism levelled at TikTok is driven by anti-Chinese sentiment in general, Mr Bertram said that it’s not something he has considered as being fair to “what are often very reasonable questions” from people.
“Typically, the more well-informed the policymakers and regulators, the more they understand our company, the lower this sense of fear,” he said.
Mr Bertram added that he believed the company will “come through” the threat of bans.
1. What is the actual threat from TikTok?
The threat from TikTok, critics say, is twofold. First, its parent company (Bytedance) may be bound by secretive Chinese laws and regulations to compel the platform to allow officials from the authoritarian regime access potentially sensitive user data without accountability. TikTok has repeatedly denied this is a risk, saying that it would never give up data to the Chinese government.
The other major threat, critics say, is that the social platform’s algorithms and recommendations are open to being influenced by Chinese authorities, based on similar legal obligations in Bytedance’s home country.
Critics are particularly mindful that TikTok is an especially influential social media platform for kids, teenagers and young adults.
2. What are the prospects for a TikTok ban in Ireland?
At present, the prospect of an imminent ban here appears to be low. Despite the European Commission forbidding TikTok on staff devices, no EU member state has yet followed this move. In Ireland, some Oireachtas members and MEPs take a critical view of TikTok, with outspoken contributions from independent Senator Gerard Craughwell and Fine Gael’s Midlands North West MEP, Colm Markey.
However, other influential figures are sceptical of singling out TikTok as a platform for illicitly gathering data, arguing that threats from more basic data-gathering practices pose at least as big a danger.
“We do not minimise the TikTok issue, but virtually the entire web and most of mobile is leaking our intimate secrets to countless companies, including in China and Russia,” said Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “The scale is far bigger than TikTok.”
For a variety of reasons, including TikTok’s significant industrial presence here with 3,000 jobs in Dublin and a second data centre in the planning, Ireland is unlikely to take the lead in legislative, regulatory or administrative initiatives that would ban the app from staff devices or more generally.
3. What is TikTok doing about all of this?
TikTok is taking the threat of bans seriously. Its chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, has been intensifying meetings with senior western politicians and regulators, in an effort to address the concerns being raised by those figures.
While this has mostly been away from public glare, the company has decided to switch its focus to a more open approach in an effort to ramp up its own arguments against the threat of further bans across western jurisdictions.
In Ireland, the company is no stranger to lobbying senior government officials, with the official Register of Lobbying showing at least six engagements in the last six months, up to and including meetings with the Taoiseach. It is also preparing to open a new European centre for transparency and accountability in Dublin, which it intends to use in engagements with public officials and others.
4. How popular is TikTok?
In Ireland, TikTok has caught up with Facebook and Instagram for downloads and is used more by younger generations than any of its rivals, except for YouTube.
It is particularly popular among children and teens. A recent CyberSafeKids survey of 4,500 Irish primary school kids aged between 8 and 12 showed that 47pc use TikTok, far more than Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
The survey also revealed that when children post videos of themselves, they are more likely to do so on TikTok (74pc) than any other platform, including Snapchat (41pc) or YouTube (20pc).
TikTok does not allow children under 13 to post content on its platform. However, its age enforcement rules are bypassed by tens of thousands of Irish pre-teen children who sign up each year.