TikTok, a threat or a victim of complicated cyber-diplomatic relationships?

The TikTok legal saga highlights the complex interplay between technology, law, and geopolitics. As digital sovereignty and data privacy become increasingly important, the outcome of TikTok’s legal battles will have significant implications for the global tech industry.

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The term ‘legal saga’ does not seem to be adequate enough as an idiom to describe what has been happening and still happens to TikTok in the social media landscape ever since it was launched, given the complexity and long-term development of legal disputes. The law to ban TikTok, signed in the USA by President Joe Biden, is the last landmark in the social network’s legal file. Not that it is the first time a social network has been banned or suspended somewhere, but it seems to be a big deal when we speak about the USA and 170 million of its citizens daily using the app.

To comprehensively understand the intricate web of sociocultural, economic, and legal issues, and their interconnectedness within this major tech company’s journey, it is essential to delve into its origins and the evolution of these legal battles from the outset.

The beginnings of TikTok’s legal controversies in the wake of the rise of AI

Data governance and concerns over privacy and security

With the explosion of social media’s commercial expansion, TikTok has found itself at the centre of numerous legal controversies. Initially, concerns were primarily focused on data privacy and security, with various governments questioning how TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, handled user data. These concerns were amplified as the cutting-edge semiconductor industry became the battleground for chip market dominance, and AI technology has evolved and integrated more deeply into digital platforms – TikTok has begun using sophisticated AI algorithms, which personalise content feeds by collecting extensive user data, leading to fears about potential misuse and data security risks.

Sociocultural impact – content policy on deepfakes, hate speech, and the elections in the digital age 

As AI technology progressed, TikTok faced additional scrutiny over its content moderation practices. The platform’s AI-driven systems for detecting and removing inappropriate content have been criticised for both overreach and underperformance. Namely, TikTok’s algorithms sometimes mistakenly censor harmless content while failing to effectively filter out harmful material, including misinformation and hate speech. Controversy cases, such as the audio deepfake impersonating US President Joe Biden have caused alarm among politicians in the year with numerous elections. Also, deepfake videos depicting fictitious members of the Le Pen family have recently surfaced online, stirring controversy as France’s far-right parties gear up for the upcoming EU elections. Consequently, these and other deepfakes have spurred legal challenges and regulatory investigations in multiple countries, pushing TikTok to enhance transparency and refine its moderation technologies.

The rise of deepfakes and AI-generated content has further complicated TikTok’s legal landscape. Researchers and lawmakers have expressed concern that AI-generated videos could be used to spread misinformation, especially during sensitive times such as elections or warfare. In response to these challenges, TikTok has implemented measures to label AI-generated content, working with technology like Adobe’s ‘Content Credentials’ to mark such media. Despite these efforts, the potential for AI misuse remains a contentious issue, prompting ongoing debates about the adequacy of TikTok’s measures and the broader implications for digital platforms.

Bans on TikTok around the world since its global rise

TikTok has faced bans and severe restrictions in several countries due to concerns over national security, privacy and data protection, and content (moderation) policy. One of the most prominent instances occurred in India, which first ordered the removal of the application from Google and Apple stores in 2019, considering it a platform that degrades culture and encourages pornography, in addition to causing paedophiles and explicit disturbing content, social stigma, and media health issues among teens. Subsequently, the country imposed a ban on TikTok in June 2020. The Indian government cited data privacy and national security concerns, arguing that the app was transmitting user data to servers outside the country. The ban came during heightened border tensions between India and China, effectively removing TikTok from one of its largest markets, and impacting millions of users and creators in the region.

The application faced bans in several other countries as well. In 2020, Pakistan temporarily banned the app, citing concerns over immoral and indecent content. The ban was lifted after TikTok assured Pakistani authorities that it would implement stricter content moderation policies. Similarly, Indonesia banned the app for a brief period in 2018 due to content deemed blasphemous and inappropriate. The ban was lifted after TikTok agreed to remove the offending content and improve its moderation practices. Recently, Kyrgyzstan also banned TikTok following security service recommendations to safeguard children. The decision came amid growing global scrutiny over the social media app’s impact on children’s mental health and data privacy.

Other bans occurred in Australia, where the government banned TikTok from all federal government-owned devices over security concerns, aligning with other ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing network members. New Zealand imposed a ban on the use of TikTok on devices with access to the parliamentary network amid cybersecurity concerns. 

Along with the listed countries that banned TikTok on government-issued devices due to security risks, Canada and Taiwan banned TikTok and some other Chinese apps on state-owned devices and launched a probe into the app in December 2022 over suspected illegal operations. Nepal, on the other side, banned TikTok in November 2023, citing disruption of social harmony and goodwill caused by the misuse of the popular video app. Somalia also banned the application in 2023 citing concerns about these platforms being used by both terrorists and immoral groups to circulate disturbing images and false information.

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EU bans

More recently, in Europe, TikTok has come under regulatory scrutiny from various governments. The EU has raised concerns about data privacy and compliance with its stringent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The European Commission had already banned TikTok on its corporate phones and highlighted the perceived danger of the platform concerning the GDPR. Furthermore, the European Commission president suggested that banning TikTok in the EU could be an option during a debate in Maastricht featuring parties’ lead candidates for the bloc’s 2024 election. Some EU countries have considered or implemented restrictions on the app for its addictive nature in children’s environments. Additionally, the app has faced calls for bans from political figures who argue that TikTok could be used for espionage or to influence public opinion, especially during the election periods.

The major restrictions TikTok faced in the EU occurred in France in April 2023, when the country banned TikTok from government employee devices due to data security and privacy concerns. The ban was part of a broader measure affecting several social media and gaming apps deemed inappropriate for government networks. Belgium imposed a ban on TikTok in March 2023 for government employees, citing national security and privacy concerns. The ban came as a response to potential data sharing with Chinese authorities, given TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance. In Scotland, the government removed TikTok from Scottish Parliament phones and devices due to security concerns, as well as in Belgium, where the app has been banned from federal government employees’ work phones.

Although the UK is no longer part of the EU, it is relevant to note that the country also banned TikTok from government devices due to security concerns. The restriction aligned with similar actions taken within the EU. In the same year, Austria decided to join the ‘ban group’, in prohibiting the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok from being installed on government employees’ work phones. The ban was implemented as a precautionary measure against potential security risks.

TikTok and the ‘ban or divest’ legal saga in the USA

In the USA, TikTok has faced perhaps the strictest scrutiny and legal challenges in the last 5 years. During the Trump administration, an executive order was issued in August 2020 seeking to ban the app unless ByteDance sold its US operations to an American company, which is a precedent compared to the current situation. Although the ban was temporarily halted by court rulings, the Biden administration has continued to review and address concerns regarding TikTok’s data practices and its potential ties to the Chinese government. 

The proposed ban led to a flurry of legal battles and negotiations, with TikTok challenging the executive order in court and exploring potential deals with American companies such as Microsoft, Walmart, and Oracle. These negotiations, however, did not result in a definitive resolution, and the legal actions temporarily halted the enforcement of the ban. The controversy continued into the Biden administration, which has taken a more measured approach but remains concerned about TikTok’s data privacy practices and its potential ties to the Chinese government.

In April 2024, President Biden signed legislation that required ByteDance to divest TikTok or face a US ban. The enactment of the law extended the divestment timeline and aimed to address ongoing national security concerns. TikTok responded by challenging the law in court, arguing that such laws violated the freedom of speech, including the First Amendment, and that no concrete evidence had been provided to substantiate the claims against its irregularity. 

Despite TikTok’s reassurances and legal challenges, the ‘ban or divest’ dilemma persists, reflecting broader tensions between the USA and China over technology and data security. The outcome of this controversy remains uncertain as TikTok continues to navigate the complex legal landscape and regulatory scrutiny in the USA. The resolution of this issue will have significant implications for the future of TikTok in the US market and for the broader regulatory environment governing international tech companies operating in the USA.

As this legal saga unfolds, it underscores the increasing importance of digital sovereignty and data privacy in the global tech industry. The TikTok case has already set a precedent for how free speech and corporate rights are trampled to protect national security, and the ongoing saga is a testament to the intricate interplay between technology, law, and geopolitics in the modern digital age.