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For TikTok, 2023 will be defined by regulation as EU, UK and US lawmakers circle

12 January 2023

By Ian Silvera

The rocket ship that is TikTok has found itself surrounded by a swathe of suits, gavels and rosettes after accelerating itself into the stratosphere of major social media companies. For some, the regulatory oversight has come slowly, with TikTok now reaching a massive one billion monthly active users worldwide, while the fact remains that the ByteDance-owned platform is just six-years-old, first being launched in September 2016.

In social media terms, it’s very much the young kid on the block compared to some of its more established counterparts like Facebook (18-years-old), Instagram (12-years-old) and YouTube (17-years-old). Whatever camp you’re in, the short-video platform now has mass influence over our culture and society, especially amongst teenagers who devour TikTok content at-pace on their smartphones.

The size and scale of that influence is staggering. In the US, some 67% of teens say they use the platform. Facebook, by way of comparison, has fallen from 71% to 32%, according to Pew Research. In the UK, TikTok (28%) lags just behind Instagram (29%) as the most popular news source among teenagers, media regulator OfCom has flagged.

Those are just two markets. TikTok is available in no less than 40 languages. This scale and growth has caught the eyes of numerous regulators across a myriad of jurisdictions and countries. The EU Commission has warned the platform over privacy, while the Irish data regulator, the Data Protection Commission, is investigating the company over alleged unlawful data transfers of European citizens’ data to China.

TikTok could therefore face hefty fines and penalties under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. “The rules are clear and must be complied with fully," EU officials have warned. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has subsequently and recently visited Brussels in a bid to build goodwill.

The company also faces pressure in the UK, where Rishi Sunak’s government is seeking to pass the Online Safety Bill. The draft legislation would establish new standards for media and technology companies and ultimately seeks to prevent the spread of harmful content across the platforms. A group of Conservative MP backbenchers are hoping to make the penalty regime harsher, including potential prison sentences for social media bosses that fall foul of the new laws.

OfCom hasn’t hung around, laying out new rules for TikTok, Snap and OnlyFans. The watchdog’s new guidelines mean the platforms must ask the age of users and take down harmful and illegal content.

“Online videos play a huge role in our lives now, particularly for children. But many people see hateful, violent or inappropriate material while using them,” OfCom boss Dame Melanie Dawes has said.

“The platforms where these videos are shared now have a legal duty to take steps to protect their users. So we’re stepping up our oversight of these tech companies, while also gearing up for the task of tackling a much wider range of online harms in the future.”

Elsewhere, in a move welcomed by US media regulator the FCC, TikTok has been banned on federal devices amid privacy fears. The decision reflects the party and geo-political heat TikTok faces because of its Chinese parent company.

A fact that could be illuminated time-and-again during the long election campaign leading up to the 2024 Presidential election in the US. For Donald Trump, who’s promised to re-run for the White House, there’s a noticeable conflict of interest: he’s backed his own social media platform, Truth Social.

Fellow Republican Marco Rubio, who sits on the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, has attacked the Joe Biden administration over TikTok. “The federal government has yet to take a single meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok. This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day,” he declared in December.

Expect more of the same as China hawks flex their muscles in both Senate and House throughout 2023, especially after the establishment of a China-focused select committee in the latter.

For TikTok, a more charitable reading of the regulatory situation is that this is part of the company’s growing-up stage, and something Meta and Alphabet have faced for years. However, the geo-political dynamic means the business could eventually face an ultimatum to appease Western lawmakers: sell or transfer divisions of the company to country-specific entities (a US business and European company, for example) or face an outright ban.