Thu, 18 April 2024
The Daily Ittefaq

EU launches TikTok probe over child protection concerns

Update : 22 Feb 2024, 21:54

Since last year, Chinese-owned TikTok and other large internet platforms have been obliged to comply with the European's Union's (EU) Digital Service Act (DSA). Compared to similar regulations around the globe, requirements laid out in the DSA are relatively stringent.

Two months ago, the European Commission, which provides oversight, expressed doubt that TikTok was adhering to regulations. It launched preliminary investigations and requested a statement from the platform. According to the European Commission, the statement was unsatisfactory.

On February 19, Thierry Breton, EU commissioner for the internal market, announced on X, formerly Twitter, that his office had opened a formal investigation into TikTok. Should the Commission discover that TikTok is in violation of terms, the platform could face substantial fines of up to 5% of its daily revenue. It's unknown, however, how high this sum would be, as parent company ByteDance does not disclose TikTok's finances.

TikTok is not the only platform the EU is taking aim at. An investigation into X for the possible spread of false information and hate speech has been underway since December. And a dozen other online platforms are currently subject to preliminary investigations.

Globally, it is estimated that over one billion users are active on TikTok each month. Proceedings against the platform, which says it has about 142 million active users in Europe, could drag on for months as the online video-sharing platform could also take legal action against any decisions made by EU regulators.

Insufficient youth protection?

Among other things, EU Commissioner Breton has accused TikTok of insufficiently implementing youth protection guidelines on its platform. These stipulate that teenagers under 16 only be allowed to use TikTok with certain restrictions, and tweens and children under 13 only be able to use heavily trimmed-down versions of TikTok.

TikTok's age verification procedure could be inadequate, as the platform relies on users' entries without formally checking their age whenever a new account is opened. This problem is not unique to TikTok, but extends to social media platforms belonging to the Meta corporation, X, and even online pornography platforms. On its website, TikTok admits that it depends on users' honesty when it comes to such information.

In theory, the TikTok platform does limit users under the age of 16 to one hour of viewing per day. However, it only takes a few clicks to lift these restrictions. What's more, the DSA also prohibits personalized advertisement for people under 16. Without proper ID checks, however, EU regulators believe this is difficult to ensure.

Is TikTok addictive?

The European Commission has also criticized the way that TikTok's algorithm floods users with an endless stream of videos tailored to their personal preferences. This in turn, can draw users deeper into the app in ways that "stimulate behavioral addictions."

Tiktok has argued that the algorithm can be switched off in accordance with DSA regulations. However, the option toggle is well-concealed within the app's menu, requiring numerous clicks to reach. Hard-to-find settings and menu options are also not unique to TikTok. But for years, media experts have pointed out that TikTok has a unique potential for addiction because so many of its users are under 25.

"There are indications that certain design elements can foster addictions," Julian Jaursch, expert for online platform regulation at the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV), told German state television broadcaster ZDF. "This goes for TikTok, as well as for other platforms."

"Gathering evidence as to whether or not this is true won't be an easy task for the European Commission," he added.

TikTok hopes to clarify

In a statement, TikTok announced it would continue to promote the improvement of youth protection guidelines. The platform also said, "we'll continue to work with experts and industry to keep young people on TikTok safe, and look forward to now having the opportunity to explain this work to the Commission in detail."

Aside from fortified youth protection, EU regulators want a complete list of TikTok's advertising clients. Moreover, the DSA requires TikTok to make its data accessible to researchers.

In January, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was in Brussels to allay EU concerns about his video-sharing platform. Days later, he responded to probing questions from the US Senate. Above all, senators appeared concerned that TikTok relayed its users' data to affiliated corporations and that its software could even be used for spying. During a similar Senate hearing in 2023, Chew admitted that he did not allow his own children — six and eight years old at the time — to use the platform.

In Singapore, where his children live, there are no age limitations to the popular platform. In Germany, TikTok recently made headlines when it was discovered that the far-right nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was more popular on the platform than any of its competitors.

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