The global expansion of the popular social network Tik Tok, owned by the Chinese-based Byte Dance Group, is tarnished after renewed criticism over how it handles its users’ privacy and its connection to the Chinese communist regime. 

Following the legal battle during the Trump administration to ban the social network in the United States or sell it to a U.S. firm, the conflict is back on the docket after governments in several countries expressed concerns about Tik Tok’s data collection.

The company has been repeatedly accused of having strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the Chinese intelligence apparatus is allegedly using it as a tool to acquire data and information on the behavior and trends of millions of Western users for geopolitical and military purposes.

Cybersecurity experts have also expressed concern that the Chinese regime may use TikTok to spread propaganda or censor Western audiences.

A group of whistleblowers told CNBC that Byte Dance has free access to the data of the platform’s U.S. users. It has complete control over the entire decision-making process and product development of TikTok in Los Angeles.

Research conducted by URL Genius, a marketing firm, found that TikTok, along with YouTube, collects more personal user data than any other social networking application.

Candidates say they will crack down on the Chinese regime and its web apps

Britain’s current foreign secretary and candidate to take over as prime minister, Liz Truss, said earlier this week that if she takes office, she will crack down on Chinese-owned technology companies such as Tik Tok.

“We absolutely should be cracking down on those types of companies,” Truss said on BBC television when explicitly asked about TikTok. “We should be limiting the amount of technology exports we do to authoritarian regimes,” she added.

Truss’s comments on TikTok came as part of an exchange of ideas on dealing with the Chinese communist regime while discussing with the contender to fill the post just vacated by Boris Johnson as prime minister of Britain.

Rishi Sunak, the other prime minister contender, earlier described China as the “biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security” and vowed to limit its influence in the U.K. 

The Chinese Communist regime has been silent on the issue for the past few months, but when candidate Truss said she would take action against Chinese companies such as Tik Tok, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian reacted with contempt toward the candidate and called her comments “irresponsible.”

Italy adds to criticism with the backing of European community legislation

Earlier this month, Italy’s data protection authority issued a formal warning against Tik Tok for an apparent violation of existing European community rules to safeguard users’ privacy.

The warning was sent after Tik Tok informed its users that as of July 13, they would start receiving advertising without requesting their consent to use the data stored on their devices.

The Italian watchdog assured that if Tik Tok did not withdraw the changes announced in its advertising policy, the Italian government would use its rights to impose restrictions on the Chinese company without giving further specifications on what kind of sanctions it would apply.

Due to the problems Tik Tok has faced in accurately monitoring the age of its users, the controlling body also highlighted the prevailing concern regarding the type of advertising that children and teenagers may receive, beyond the legal issue of privacy which is also a concern. 

International companies operating within the European Union could face fines of up to 4 percent of their global revenues if it is confirmed that they violated the privacy of their customers or third parties.

U.S. Senators call for investigation into whether Chinese officials have access to Tik Tok database

Leaders of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee formally requested the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in early July to investigate whether Chinese officials have access to U.S. user data stored by the Tik Tok app.

In a letter sent to FTC chairwoman Lina Khan, the senators asked her to urgently examine how well the video platform protects its users’ private data.

“We write in response to public reports that individuals in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been accessing data on U.S. users, in contravention of several public representations,” the message reads.

The senators’ complaint came a month after Brendan Carr, a Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, called on Apple and Google to remove Tik Tok from their app stores. 

Later, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to the CEO of Tik Tok, Shou Zi Chew, demanding answers about the app’s data security practices.

Depression and suicide in children due to abuse of TikTok 

With more than 3 billion downloads, primarily by children and adolescents, the Tik Tok platform has raised the alarm among children’s mental health specialists who warn about the dangerous effects of the social network on children.

According to research published by the renowned child psychotherapist John Byrne, children’s frequent use of TikTok is associated with severe psychiatric disorders that often lead to serious depression, suicide, or self-harm.

In the United States, there have been several reported cases of children and adolescents who committed suicide or suffered severe injuries while attempting to carry out reprehensible challenges that included hanging themselves until they lost consciousness, taking “hallucinogenic” drugs, beating people, and other aberrations.

Recently, the parents of two girls who choked to death filed a lawsuit against Tik Tok, accusing the social network of inciting their daughters to participate in the dangerous “blackout challenge,” which encourages users of the platform to choke themselves until they pass out.

Tik Tok reacts to criticism

Following the barrage of criticism and complaints received recently, the social network said in a statement on Wednesday, July 26, that it will share data with researchers who will study activity on the platform and its links to Beijing.

Vanessa Pappas, Tik Tok’s chief operating officer, was the one who posted about the new “transparency measure.”

The company is also developing a tool to give researchers an “effective way to evaluate our content moderation systems and examine existing content available on our platform,” Pappas added. 

Researchers will soon be able to upload their own posts to see how different types of content are allowed, rejected, or passed to moderators for further evaluation.

The reality is that this is not the first time the company has committed to improving its security system and report on its methods for safeguarding user information. Still, complaints continue to be made about the evident lack of real commitment to adapt to Western legislation. 

Without going any further, in June, Buzzfeed News claimed that some U.S. user data has been repeatedly accessed from China and also reported that former Tik Tok employees claimed that the company placed pro-Chinese regime content on its now-defunct U.S. news app.

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