CHINA WATCHHow Dangerous Is TikTok?

By Janosch Delcker

Published 6 February 2023

The rapid ascent of the Chinese video-streaming app TikTok has alarmed lawmakers and privacy watchdogs around the world. What are they worried about? Why is TikTok in the crosshairs of so many authorities and monitoring bodies.

TikTok is in the crosshairs of many authorities and monitoring bodies. Lawmakers worldwide are debating how to restrict, if not outlaw, the use of the Chinese video-streaming service, which has become one of the most popular apps among teenagers around the world.

While the European Union is about to implement legislation that will force TikTok to aggressively police harmful content, countries from the US to Japan are mulling how to regulate the app — or even follow India’s example and outright ban it.

Their fear is that China’s government could hijack TikTok to push its interests. Like the Trojan horse in Greek mythology, they warn, Beijing could use the app to gain access to sensitive user data and spread misleading information.

There are legitimate concerns about potential surveillance by the Chinese regime,” Estelle Masse of Brussels-based digital rights nonprofit Access Now told DW. TikTok also deserves close attention “because it’s the fastest-growing social media in the world, and its demographic is very young,” she added.

The app’s parent company, Chinese technology conglomerate ByteDance, has long been under scrutiny for how it collects and processes user data. But pressure on regulators to rein in the platform has been mounting since it was revealed in December that ByteDance employees had accessed the data of Western journalists to investigate leaks to the press. 

A TikTok spokeswoman told DW that the incident was “the misconduct of certain individuals who are no longer employed at ByteDance,” adding that protocols for who can access user data have since “been significantly … hardened.” She argued that while TikTok user data was stored in data centers outside China, “some limited employee access” to the information from within China was necessary “to support our global community.”  

At the same time, the spokeswoman insisted that “we have never been asked to provide TikTok user data to the Chinese government and have never provided any data to it.” 

How TikTok Got So Big 
The app’s rapid ascent is unprecedented in the history of the internet. Within a few years, it rose from a niche app for lip-synching kids to one of the world’s leading social media platforms, which users increasingly turn to for running search queries or following the news