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At first glance, TikTok appears to be a harmless and ordinary social media application. Anyone who is invited to use this particular social networking medium enjoys an endless stream of fun music videos, dance videos, cooking recipes and beauty tips. As with Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, an algorithm evaluates each user’s use of the social medium each time in order to curate content that is most likely to interest them. For the TikTok application, however, which originates from China, there is growing concern about how this data is being used and how the application itself could abuse it to influence or spy on users.

A few days ago, the European Commission announced that workers in its services must remove the application from their mobile devices by March 15 at the latest. The European Parliament also passed a similar ban on Tuesday. At the same time, the governments of the USA and Canada proceeded with a similar blockade. The popular app, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, is used by more than a billion people. TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, which denies allegations that the Chinese state could have access to the app. “We have not received a single data request from the Chinese government since the transparency reports began in 2019,” a company spokesperson told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in November.

Deleted videos and filters from the app itself

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The content that is displayed as well as what is not displayed while using the application is another point that is heavily criticized. A deleted video in 2019 caused an uproar. The particular video featured a 17-year-old girl who initially gave make-up advice but later denounced Beijing’s oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority living in Xinjiang province.

An investigation by German broadcaster ARD in March 2022 revealed that TikTok used filters in Germany, which blocked content with specific keywords such as “LGBTQ”, “Sex”, “Nazism” and the name of Chinese tennis player Peng Shui. which accused China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The app promised a “thorough investigation” following this post.

“Political vehicle” of China TikTok?

Among other things, the re-evaluations in Europe and North America regarding the application were put into effect as a reaction measure to a new data protection guideline presented in November by the company itself. The irony: it was intended to be more transparent about the handling of European users’ data, which is stored on servers in the US and Singapore. It should even allow “certain employees” access to this data in many other countries, including China, the company claims. The fact that TikTok openly revealed that the data of European users is transferred to China caused this outrage.

Last December, the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, warned that TikTok was under the control of the Chinese government, “which does not share our values.” In Germany now, there is a system of banning the application on service devices such as the Federal Press Office, while so far there is no general ban on it as a social media tool in public bodies. The Federal Ministry of Health even has its own Tiktok channel, which operates on separate devices that are not connected to the ministry’s servers. It is very likely that further national regulations will follow following the recent re-evaluations.

Europe, the USA and Canada are not the first countries to start enforcing restrictions on the use of the application. In Taiwan, Tiktok was completely blocked in December and labeled as software that “endangers national information and communications security” as it is seen as a vehicle for Beijing’s political goal of bringing Taiwan under its control. Accordingly the blocking of the application in India has a political background linked to China. In addition, the Taliban are also considering blocking the application in Afghanistan, as they fear that such programs “lead young people away from the right path”.