Apr 23, 2024 3 min read

TikTok battling regulators and lawmakers in both EU and US

TikTok is facing new legal battles in both the EU and the US. EU officials say TikTok may have breached the Digital Services Act by launching TikTok Lite and its rewards programme without the required risk assessment. In the US, TikTok’s lawyers are prepping to fight a proposed ban in the courts

TikTok battling regulators and lawmakers in both EU and US

TikTok says it is “disappointed” that European Union officials have launched new formal proceedings against the social media app to assess whether the launch of TikTok Lite in two European markets violates the Digital Services Act. Meanwhile, in the US, TikTok staffers have been reassured that the company will take to the courts to fight any attempt to ban the app within the country. 

In a statement yesterday, the European Commission stressed that, under EU rules, large platforms like TikTok are “obliged to submit a risk assessment report, including measures to mitigate any potential systemic risks, prior to launching any new functionalities that are likely to have a critical impact on their systemic risks”. 

This is all part of the relatively new EU Digital Services Act, which regulates large digital platforms. Though, not so new that TikTok would not have been aware of these obligations prior to launching TikTok Lite in France and Spain. 

TikTok Lite is a version of the video-sharing app made to perform better over slower internet connections. Although this iteration of the app isn't new, having first launched in Thailand in 2018, it was not previously available in Europe. 

One specific feature of the app has caused particular concern amongst Commission officials, and that’s a rewards programme which allows users to earn points - which can be exchanged for Amazon vouchers and TikTok coins - in return for wiling away time in the app watching videos and fulfilling other tasks. 

That rewards programme, says the Commission, was “launched without prior diligent assessment of the risks it entails, in particular those related to the addictive effect of the platforms, and without taking effective risk mitigating measures”. In light of the “suspected absence” of “effective age verification mechanisms on TikTok”, this is “of particular concern for children”.

In its response, TikTok insisted that its rewards programme is only available to adults, stating that it is “disappointed” with the Commission’s decision. A spokesperson added that the “TikTok Lite rewards hub is not available to under eighteens and there is a daily limit on video watch tasks”. 

Though, really, given the Commission's concern is as much about the effectiveness of TikTok's systems for blocking access to the rewards programme for under eighteens, it will need to make efforts to show that its verification processes are, in fact, robust, and provide an effective barrier to under eighteens from accessing the programme.  

The Commission says it requested that TikTok submit a risk assessment report relating to TikTok Lite and the rewards programme last week. The deadline for that submission is today, with TikTok then having until 3 May to provide other information that has been requested. 

If TikTok fails to reply by that deadline then the Commission “may impose fines up to 1% of the provider's total annual income or worldwide turnover and periodic penalties up to 5% of the provider's average daily income or worldwide annual turnover”. 

With TikTok achieving $16 billion in ad revenue in the US alone last year, that could quickly become a substantial sum of money. The Commission also says that it might force the suspension of the rewards programme in Europe pending an assessment of its safety. 

Meanwhile, over in the US, TikTok's political woes relating to the claims that the Chinese government has access to user data via the app's China-based owner Bytedance continue apace.

This weekend the House Of Representatives backed for a second time proposals that would force Bytedance to sell TikTok or face a ban in the US. This time the sell-or-be-banned law was included in a bigger bill that also includes aid packages for Ukraine and Israel. That means it should get consideration in the Senate much more speedily. 

Should the bill successfully pass both chambers of Congress, TikTok has made it clear that it will fight the sell-or-be-banned law in the courts, based on the argument it is unconstitutional on free speech grounds. Similar arguments were used to stall attempts by then President Donald Trump to ban use of TikTok in the country and a state-level TikTok ban that was passed by lawmakers in Montana. 

TikTok’s Head Of Public Policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, has confirmed in a memo to staff that that's the plan should the Senate endorse the proposals voted through by the House. According to The Information he wrote, “At the stage that the bill is signed, we will move to the courts for a legal challenge. We’ll continue to fight, as this legislation is a clear violation of the first amendment rights of the 170 million Americans on TikTok”.

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