TikTok: UK Parliament closes account after MPs raise concerns about links to China and data privacy

Many MPs are concerned about data breaches and national security

Parliament’s TikTok account has been closed after MPs raised concerns about the social media firm’s link to China.

The Government initially created an account on the popular app, which is owned by a Chinese parent firm, in an attempt to engage young people with the work of Parliament.

But the relationship between Westminster and Beijing has been severely strained as of late, after seven MPs and peers were sanctioned by the Chinese State.

Other countries, such as the US, have also voiced concerns about the app - with many politicians uneasy about users’ data ending up in the wrong hands.

The UK Parliament has closed its TikTok account as MPs raise concerns over links to China

India, which was formerly TikTok’s largest market, has banned the video app entirely.

But why exactly has Parliament closed its TikTok account, what are the concerns, and what links does TikTok have to China?

What did Parliament say?

A UK Parliament spokesman said: “Based on MP feedback, we are closing the UK Parliament TikTok account earlier than we had planned.

“The account was a pilot initiative while we tested the platform as a way of reaching younger audiences with relevant content about Parliament.”

The account has been locked and its content has been deleted, and followers are now met with an updated bio that reads: “This account is now closed. Find us at www.parliament.uk.”

What links does TikTok have to China?

TikTok is owned by parent firm ByteDance, a Chinese multinational internet technology company headquartered in Beijing.

Founded by Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, ByteDance initially launched apps such as Neihan Duanzi (Inside Jokes), a platform for sharing gags, and Toutiao (Headlines), a news aggregator.

The distinguishing factor of these apps was that they used artificial intelligence, or, an ‘algorithm’, to learn what kind of content users liked.

Today, Toutiao is China’s biggest news aggregator, with 360m users.

Mr Zhang’s next step was to launch Douyin (Shaking Sound), a platform for recording and sharing lip-sync videos.

Zhang Yiming founded multinational internet technology company ByteDance

The app was modelled on Musical.ly, another Chinese-made lip-syncing app popular amongst young Americans, but enhanced by ByteDance’s algorithm discovery engine.

Within a year, ByteDance released a twin app outside China, with an identical interface and algorithm but separate content. The app was called TikTok.

The app at first remained largely unnoticed outside of Asia, but in 2017, when ByteDance bought Musical.ly and subsumed its 100m users, TikTok took off.

It’s kept growing in popularity ever since, reaching 1B users at a little over four years old - a milestone that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube took eight years to pass.

What are the concerns?

Many MPs are concerned about data breaches and national security.

In a letter to the Speakers of the Commons and Lords, they said they were “surprised and disappointed” that an account had been launched after “recent reports have made clear… TikTok data is routinely transferred to China.”

Nus Ghani shared the letter on her Twitter

As ByteDance’s headquarters are based in Beijing, there are worries that - like other big Chinese companies - the firm is subject to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.

The letter, primarily authored by Tory MP Nus Ghani, continues: “The prospect of Xi Jinping’s Government having access to personal data on our children’s phones ought to be a cause for major concern.”

This comes after seven MPs and peers were sanctioned by the Beijing Government for speaking out about human rights abuses.

And the UK isn’t the only country to voice concerns about the app.

In 2020, India banned TikTok as well as dozens of other apps with links to China.

Although the ban was provoked by a border clash, India claimed the apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian users’ information.

Two months later, the US’ former president Donald Trump issued an executive order that required TikTok to be sold to an American company within 45 days or else face a ban.

The order cited the “vast swathes” of information the app was collecting, which it said potentially allowed China “to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct espionage.”

ByteDance successfully challenged the order in court.

How have MPs reacted to the decision?

Ms Ghani wrote on Twitter: “Thank you @CommonsSpeaker & @LorSpeaker for standing up for our values and protecting our data.

“Common sense prevails.”

Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith welcomed the decision to close the TikTok account, which followed pressure from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

He told PA news agency: “We are pleased that Parliament understood there was a problem and shut it down.

“It’s important for others to look at that now and we need to start talking to people about not using TikTok.”

What has TikTok said?

In the past, TikTok has tried to calm fears by keeping foreign users’ data out of China.

ByteDance is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, and TikTok’s data is stored in the US and Singapore.

The app itself does not operate in China.

But a BuzzFeed report published in June detailed a leaked voice recording, in which a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety Department was quoted as saying: “Everything is seen in China.”

In response to Parliament’s decision, a TikTok spokeswoman said: “While it is disappointing that Parliament will no longer be able to connect with the millions of people who use TikTok in the UK, we reiterate the offer to reassure those Members of Parliament who raised concerns and clarify any inaccuracies about our platform.”

The firm has offered to meet any MP who wants to know more about the way users’ data is handled.

Theo Bertram, the app’s vice president for government relations and public policy in Europe, told MPs in July. “We have never been asked to provide TikTok user data to the Chinese Government, nor would we if asked.”