TikTok was caught completely off guard when the European Union’s executive arm told staff to delete the video-sharing app from phones on Thursday.
Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice president of European public policy, told Bloomberg that TikTok’s executives found out via media reports. The European Commission department that issued the suspension never reached out to the company about any concerns.
“We’ve never talked to them. They’ve never asked us for any input, so it’s a surprise,” Bertram said. “Normally we would expect some engagement and then some ability to understand what the case is against us, what the evidence is, to address that. And, in this instance, we haven’t had any of that.”
The ban was part of a growing movement to restrict TikTok on government devices, spurred by concern about cybersecurity risks and the company’s ties to the Chinese government. The US Congress also has barred the app from government devices, and some officials there have called for a broader ban of TikTok, whose parent company is China’s ByteDance Ltd.
TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew was in Brussels last month visiting a number of European commissioners, some of whom raised concerns about data protection. That followed a December scandal in which TikTok employees accessed user data.
Bertram said these officials stressed that TikTok is able to do business in Europe as long as the company follows the EU’s rules spanning everything from data protection to content moderation.
“They never gave us any impression that this was something that was being considered,” Bertram said. “Not to be told what the process is, it feels un-European.”
The commission’s internal IT department sent an email to employees Thursday morning telling them to delete the app from official phones and devices by March 15. Bertram said the company wants the opportunity to find out what the commission’s concerns are before that deadline, to explain how they are safeguarding Europeans’ data and to find out how the suspension could be lifted.
TikTok wrote to the commission department responsible but has only received a “holding” response so far.
Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees the EU’s corporate management board that made the decision, downplayed the gravity of the move at a briefing with journalists on Thursday, saying there was no “immediate threat to commission officials. Still, they are constantly monitoring the situation,” he said.
“It’s of course not a secret that we are under an increased cybersecurity threat, therefore we should have to take measures in order to avoid anything in the future,” Hahn said. He said the move was part of an ongoing assessment and training of commission staff. “From our professional perspective it’s — I wouldn’t say business as usual – but it’s part of our daily work.”
Still, the move shows how the EU is becoming more aggressive in its approach to TikTok. After a call with Chew in January, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said the EU will ban the platform if it doesn’t follow content moderation and data rules.
“We will not hesitate to adopt the full scope of sanctions to protect our citizens if audits do not show full compliance,” Breton wrote.
Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager has been more cautious about threatening a complete ban of the platform like the US has discussed, telling Swedish media this month that such a move is “not on the table.”
The Dutch intelligence agency is also probing potential risks associated with government workers using TikTok on their phones. And French President Emmanuel Macron has raised concerns about the platform and its impact on young users.
European Commission bans TikTok on official devices amid data protection concerns
French Senate to open commission of inquiry into TikTok
‘Death by a thousand cuts:’ US TikTok bans gain ground
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