Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 March 2024


Senior MPs voice con­cerns over Tik­Tok’s own­er­ship

Senior MPs have raised con­cerns about Tik­Tok’s own­er­ship in the UK, after the US House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives last week approved a bill that would ban dis­tri­bu­tion of the video app unless it is sold by its Chinese par­ent com­pany.

The legis­la­tion still requires approval by the Sen­ate and Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s sig­na­ture, but if passed, Byte­Dance would be given 180 days to divest own­er­ship of Tik­Tok to avoid the ban, after the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives acted on con­cerns that the com­pany’s own­er­ship struc­ture was a national secur­ity risk.

The bill has triggered inter­ven­tions from the lead­ers of two UK par­lia­ment­ary select com­mit­tees, who deman­ded answers from the gov­ern­ment about the plat­form’s future own­er­ship.

Liam Byrne, Labour MP and chair of the House of Com­mons busi­ness and trade com­mit­tee, told the Fin­an­cial Times that while scru­tiny of Tik­Tok had focused on the safety of user data, it was the plat­form’s effect on demo­cratic elec­tions that con­cerned him.

“The point is about algorithms that are cap­able of flex­ing dis­in­form­a­tion to the top of people’s news feeds in a way that is totally uncon­trolled,” he said. “If you have got an organ­isa­tion that could be influ­enced by someone like China, that should be a mat­ter of con­cern.”

Rishi Sunak, prime min­is­ter, last week pro­posed chan­ging the law to block the pur­chase of The Tele­graph news­pa­per by a for­eign state to pre­vent other coun­tries from hav­ing influ­ence over the press. “Why wouldn’t we apply the same rule to China and an app that is twice as import­ant to people’s news gath­er­ing in the UK?” Byrne asked.

He poin­ted to research by Ofcom, the com­mu­nic­a­tions reg­u­lator, that found 5 per cent of UK adults got some of their news from The Tele­graph web­site or app, while 10 per cent got some of their news from Tik­Tok. Byrne planned to lay an amend­ment to the digital mar­kets, com­pet­i­tion and con­sumers bill when it returns to the Com­mons. This would seek to force the gov­ern­ment to dis­close its assess­ment of the value of requir­ing Byte­Dance to divest of Tik­Tok.

Alicia Kearns, Con­ser­vat­ive MP and chair of the Com­mons for­eign affairs com­mit­tee, told the FT she was not con­vinced the gov­ern­ment should fol­low Con­gress’s lead, but non­ethe­less sig­nalled action on Tik­Tok was needed.

She said the legis­la­tion passed by Con­gress did “not solve the issues of algorithmic tam­per­ing in pur­suit of transna­tional inter­fer­ence, nor data exfiltra­tion on Tik­Tok, nor the wider social media app mar­ket”. Exfiltra­tion is the unau­thor­ised removal of data.

The UK could instead look at “des­ig­na­tion of social media apps” under the con­trol of for­eign adversar­ies as national secur­ity threats, or “tougher data exfiltra­tion laws”, she sug­ges­ted.

Kearns said the digital mar­kets bill, which in part aims to pro­tect con­sumer rights, would provide an oppor­tun­ity for MPs to exam­ine the issue. But she warned it was “quite pos­sible it des­cends into another debate around des­ig­nat­ing China a threat, or not”.

The gov­ern­ment last year labelled China an “epoch-defin­ing chal­lenge”, to the inter­na­tional order but has stopped short of brand­ing it a “threat”.

Tik­Tok said: “These secur­ity con­cerns are mis­placed — Tik­Tok is not avail­able in China and Byte­Dance is a global com­pany that is not con­trolled by any gov­ern­ment.”

Last year, sev­eral coun­tries, includ­ing the UK, banned the use of Tik­Tok on gov­ern­ment devices owing to secur­ity con­cerns. A sep­ar­ate amend­ment to the data pro­tec­tion and digital inform­a­tion bill, which will seek to cur­tail Tik­Tok’s power to trans­fer user data to China, is to be debated in the com­ing weeks.

The gov­ern­ment said it was work­ing “to ensure we can rap­idly address threats to our demo­cratic pro­cesses, and we will not hes­it­ate to take action to pro­tect our national secur­ity if needed”.

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