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April 12, 2023updated 18 Apr 2023 8:27am

What is TikTok?

TikTok, developed by Chinese start-up ByteDance, has become one of the most popular apps in the world. But its future in the West could be in doubt.

By Silvia Pellegrino

TikTok is one of the most popular applications in the world and one of its most valuable media brands. Globally, the app counts more than 30.9 million daily active users via iOS and 14.4 million via Android. In the UK, TikTok registers about 23 million users per month, while the US has the highest number of users with 135.5 million.  

Lately, however, there have been a series of concerns and disputes over the kind of data the app collects and the strategies it uses to do so. With countries such as India completely prohibiting the use of the platform and the US and UK implementing bans on government phones, TikTok’s future is uncertain.

Smart phone with TIK TOK logo, which is a popular social network on the internet.
TikTok is one of the most popular apps on both iOS and Android. (Photo by DANIEL CONSTANTE/Shutterstock)

What is TikTok?

TikTok was launched by Chinese startup ByteDance in September 2016. It wasn’t until 2017 that its user number began to rise when it bought out its rival app and imported all of its users to TikTok. 

The app was launched in its current format in 2018. By September 2021, it counted more than one billion active monthly users worldwide. 

While ByteDance is a Chinese firm, TikTok is banned in China. This is because ByteDance wants to market its tech to foreign audiences without necessarily abiding by Chinese media laws, which force all domestically operated applications to follow restrictive censorship requirements. It is on these grounds that China has blocked many popular US social media outlets from operating within its borders, including Facebook and Instagram. 

ByteDance has hedged its bets in this respect with its ownership of Douyin, designed to run inside China in accordance with Chinese law. Launched in 2016, the app also includes hotel booking and e-payment features, as well as a facility to stream full-length movies. 

Which countries have banned TikTok?

Several countries have chosen to censor or even ban TikTok. For instance, both the US and the UK prohibit TikTok from being used on work devices belonging to federal government employees. Other countries have imposed similar requirements, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, and France. 

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Only four countries have fully banned TikTok: Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. All of these bans have been imposed because of either content moderation or security concerns. Indonesia and Pakistan later reversed their prohibition of TikTok after the platform imposed new content moderation requirements in line with the wishes of both jurisdictions. Afghanistan, meanwhile, has continued to enforce its ban, on the grounds that its youth was ‘being misled’ by the platform. 

India continues to prohibit TikTok from operating within its borders, on the grounds that the app constitutes a data security and privacy risk for millions of devices in the country. The country’s government claimed that apps like TikTok and the popular messaging platform WeChat were using data illegally and secretly getting and collecting private information from people’s phones, making them a threat to India’s national security. 

Will the US ban TikTok?

US government objections to TikTok’s use began under the Trump administration, which threatened to ban TikTok from every US federal device due to its former alleged ties with the Chinese government. Similarly, President Joe Biden’s administration and US federal officials are now requesting that ByteDance sell its stake in the platform. To be specific, Biden’s government is threatening to ban the TikTok app fully, not only from federal devices. 

Practical implementation of such a ban would likely involve platforms like Apple App Store and Google Play being compelled to make the application unavailable in the US. As BBC News reported, this would prevent people from downloading the app from those platforms. However, those who already have TikTok on their phones would not lose it, even if it would eventually stop updating. 

Another possibility is to follow India’s footsteps and force internet and telecommunications providers to block TikTok at the source. The US government could also criminalise the application, although this is much less likely

Will the UK ban TikTok?

In March 2023, the UK government announced that the TikTok app would be banned from government devices for security reasons.

This is because Cabinet Office ministers scheduled a security review and looked at the possible vulnerabilities of government data, such as data leaks and cyberattacks, from social media apps on devices and risks around how sensitive information could be potentially accessed. 

“Restricting the use of TikTok on Government devices is a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cybersecurity experts,” explained the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden.

This ban, however, does not include the personal devices of government employees. 

A TikTok spokesperson told The Guardian: “We believe these bans have been based on fundamental misconceptions and driven by wider geopolitics, in which TikTok, and our millions of users in the UK, play no part. We remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns.”

How does TikTok collect data?

TikTok typically collects data through its recommendation engine, which uses behavioural information to determine what the users’ interests are and moulds the algorithm accordingly. 

There is a wide range of data that the app collects, as the app’s privacy policy states: for instance, how long a user stays on a page, whether or not a video is shared, if a user scrolls away from a video, if and what a user comments under a video, basic login information, location data and their IP address.

“When the app is in use, it has significantly more permissions than it really needs,” explained Robert Potter, co-CEO of Internet 2.0, in the aforementioned interview with The Guardian. “It grants those permissions by default. When a user doesn’t give permission, TikTok persistently asks.” 

TikTok’s privacy policy divides user data into three different categories: user-provided data, automatically collected data and third-party data. The first two are taken directly from the user’s behaviour on the app, while the latter is given by partners rather than the app itself.

TikTok does explain explicitly that the data it collects cannot be used to identify the user, since it is stored as non-personally identifiable information (non-PII). The data is used mostly to recommend content and advertisements, provide filters, moderate content and classify demographic information. Even if this user data is not sold, it is still shared with third parties like advertisers. 

Read more: UK ICO offers advice on generative AI as more European countries mull ChatGPT bans

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