Tech

TikTok brings lobbying fight to Europe

TikTok is gearing up for a major lobbying fight in Brussels.

The apps developer, Beijing-based technology company ByteDance, was labeled a national security threat by U.S. lawmakers earlier this year. But it has mostly flown under the radar in Europe, where policymakers are hardly aware of the apps existence.

Thats about to change.

TikTok is one of the few Chinese online platforms targeted at Western markets. It is also one of the fastest growing worldwide.

Over the past 12 months, the video-sharing app was downloaded more than 750 million times on app stores, outpacing U.S. competitors Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. It now counts more than 500 million monthly active users across the globe, including some 12 million in its largest markets in Europe — Germany, France and the U.K.

Over the past 12 months, TikTok was downloaded more than 750 million times on app stores, outpacing U.S. competitors Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat.

The app is mainly used by teenagers — users have to be 13 to sign up, but it is easy to circumvent the age limit — who watch but also post short videos with music or lyrics in the background. Earlier this year, the 20-year-old U.S. rapper Lil Nas X was catapulted to international fame after his song, “Old Town Road,” went viral on the platform.

But TikToks main activity — publishing user-generated videos and targeted advertising based off the personal data of minors — also means its likely to fall into legal crosshairs in Europe, where policymakers are tightening the screws on how platforms police illegal content online and protect users data.

It also means the video-sharing app is eager to get itself a seat at the policymaking table. In the past few months, the company has hired policy experts in London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin and Brussels to help it navigate the European legislative environment and get involved in policy debates.

“TikTok recognizes that Brussels is an exporter of regulation. Its a conversation they want to be a part of,” said Siada El Ramly, who leads Edima, a Brussels-based tech lobby representing Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Lil Nas X performing at the iHeart Radio Music Festival in Las Vegas | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Risky business

TikToks business model has already raised concerns with privacy regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission found the app illegally collected personal information from children and in February slapped the Chinese company with a $5.7 million fine. (Googles YouTube recently also paid a record $170 million fine for alleged violations of the same U.S. childrens privacy law.)

The U.S. probe prompted the United Kingdoms data protection authority to launch its own investigation, looking into whether TikTok violated privacy rules in handling the personal data of its underage users. Other European interventions could follow, under the EUs tough General Data Protection Regulation, which allows for fines of up to 4 percent of a companys annual global turnover.

TikTok also faces some of the same challenges as other social media platforms when it comes to combating fake news, hate speech and terrorist propaganda online. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported the Chinese app has been used by the terror organization ISIS as a recruiting tool.

Even if European lawmakers havent woken up to it yet, TikTok technically already falls under the scope of EU legislation on content moderation and copyright. It is also subject to new legislation that requires platforms to proactively remove flagged terrorist propaganda within an hour of it being posted, and it will have to follow the rules being written in an upcoming piece of legislation — the Digital Services Act — that will govern how platforms police illegal content online.

TikToks business model has already raised concerns with privacy regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

In some quarters, the app is also seen as a potential security risk. Reports that the app censored videos linked to Hong Kongs pro-democracy protests and to Tibetan independence raised fears that the company is vulnerable to content censorship by the Chinese government.

In October, two influential U.S. senators called on the Trump administration to investigate whether the popular video app poses a national security risk to the U.S. Shortly after, the U.S. government started a national security review of ByteDances $1 billion acquisition of TikToks predecessor, the U.S. company Musical.ly. TikTok has denied all allegations.

Chinese companies go West

When it comes to getting ahead of the regulation game, TikTok is charting a different course to other Chinese heavyweights.

The headquarters of Chinese tech company Baidu | Simon Lim/AFP via Getty Images

Most Chinese tech companies, such as Tencent and Baidu, have been largely absent on the EU policymaking scene. Partly, theyre just not that interested in the European market.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has no lobbyist accredited to the European Parliament in Brussels, for example, compared with five for Amazon, a direct competitor. In 2018, Alibaba spent about €700,000 in lobbying in Brussels, compared with close to €2 million for Amazon.

More recently, however, Chinese brands are taking more interest in Europe.

As the economy back home plateaus, Chinese companies with global ambitions are “looking for new markets, new growth opportunities,” said Chris Reitermann, CEO of the advertising agency Ogilvy China, who cited Europe as a “big priority” for his clients.

“A lot of the tech companies are paying quite close attention to whats happening in Brussels and whats happening in the various European markets,” said Reitermann.

Most Chinese tech companies have been largely absent on the EU policymaking scene. Partly, theyre just not that interested in the European market.

With an interest in European markets comes an interest in shaping the policies that govern those markets. That includes joining transparency registers and relevant trade associations, as well as hosting public events and meeting with EU officials.

“There is a shift in how China is approaching its lobbying strategies, both through private companies and in the government,” said Katharine Ainger, a writer who has worked with Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based lobbying watchdog. “Its embracing more the Western lobbying strategies.”

The first Chinese company to do so has been Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, which was forced to beef up its presence in Brussels after it came under fire for alleged security risks. It has had 46 meetings with top European Commission officials in the last five years, according to a report published in April by Corporate Europe Observatory.

ByteDance appears to be taking a more proactive approach — not waiting for Brussels to take the first punch.

A seat at the table

ByteDance, aware that the next European Commission wants to ramp up efforts to regulate platforms, is already working to get its foot in the door.

The company wants to make sure it will be a part of the EU policymaking conversation, according to a TikTok spokesperson. Its approach will embrace its startup culture: learning as it goes, the spokesperson added.

TikTok appears to be taking a more proactive approach — not waiting for Brussels to take the first punch.

In Brussels, TikTok is looking for a policy manager whose roleRead More – Source

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