Techwar: Tiktok US ban may include app stores, ads

By Savannah Billman

Troubles for Tiktok in the US could be bigger than anticipated: a White House document Reuters saw indicated that the August 6 executive order could prohibit US-based app stores including Apple and Google from listing the app altogether, while a French data regulator confirmed on Tuesday an open investigation into the video app’s data practices.

Why it matters: Tiktok, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, is widely viewed as the first Chinese-made app to obtain global popularity. Yet growing suspicion of Chinese tech and data privacy practices have led to one hit after another for the company, and not the viral video kind. India banned the app in June and it faces restrictions in Japan and the US.

READ MORE: 8 things to know about the Chinese tech giant behind Tiktok

Details: Tiktok’s potential ban in the US and investigation in France are rooted in concerns about data security.

  • According to the Reuters report, a White House document which outlined plans to disrupt Tiktok’s operations and funding in the US, offered a glimpse of how US President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban transactions with Tiktok may work.
  • “Prohibited transactions may include, for example, agreements to make the Tiktok app available on app stores… purchasing advertising on Tiktok, and accepting terms of service to download the Tiktok app onto a user device,” Reuters reported the document as saying.
  • Specifics on the ban remain unclear. Some media outlets have reported that banning Tiktok from US app stores could restrict the app worldwide—including in China.
  • French data regulatory body CNIL meanwhile confirmed to Tech Crunch that it began investigating Tiktok in May 2020 in response to a complaint about deleting a video from the app.
  • Originally an investigation into how Tiktok handles user data, the investigation has since widened to include transparency issues, data access and protection, and data transfer out of the EU. 
  • “Tiktok’s top priority is protecting our users’ privacy and safety. We are aware of CNIL’s investigation and are fully cooperating with them,” a company spokesperson told Tech Crunch. 

Context: Tiktok was the world’s most downloaded app in January 2020 with 104.7 million downloads across app stores. But the app has long been scrutinized for censoring content and poor data security practices.

  • Tiktok began negotiating a buyout deal with Microsoft for all US operations in early August. The White House’s executive order, and questions about its interpretation and application, complicate any potential buyout deals.
  • Data privacy rights in Europe are guided by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which gives individuals certain rights over their data such as downloading or deleting it. The GDPR also requires transparency between data collectors and users. 
  • Despite the investigation, Tiktok is still pursuing expansion in Europe. The company announced the creation of its first European data center in Ireland on August 6, to be completed in 2022. It is expected to store all European data.