Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has yet another Big Tech GDPR probe to add to its pile: The regulator said yesterday it has opened two investigations into video sharing platform TikTok.
The first covers how TikTok handles children’s data, and whether it complies with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.
The DPC also said it will examine TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China, where its parent entity is based — looking to see if the company meets requirements set out in the regulation covering personal data transfers to third countries.
TikTok was contacted for comment on the DPC’s investigation.
A spokesperson told us:
The privacy and safety of the TikTok community, particularly our youngest members, is a top priority. We’ve implemented extensive policies and controls to safeguard user data and rely on approved methods for data being transferred from Europe, such as standard contractual clauses. We intend to fully cooperate with the DPC.
The Irish regulator’s announcement of two “own volition” enquiries follows pressure from other EU data protection authorities and consumers protection groups which have raised concerns about how TikTok handles’ user data generally and children’s information specifically.
In Italy this January, TikTok was ordered to recheck the age of every user in the country after the data protection watchdog instigated an emergency procedure, using GDPR powers, following child safety concerns.
TikTok went on to comply with the order — removing more than half a million accounts where it could not verify the users were not children.
This year European consumer protection groups have also raised a number of child safety and privacy concerns about the platform. And, in May, EU lawmakers said they would review the company’s terms of service.
On children’s data, the GDPR sets limits on how kids’ information can be processed, putting an age cap on the ability of children to consent to their data being used. The age limit varies per EU member state but there’s a hard cap for kids’ ability to consent at 13 years old (some EU countries set the age limit at 16).
In response to the announcement of the DPC’s enquiry, TikTok pointed to its use of age-gating technology and other strategies it said it uses to detect and remove underage users from its platform.
It also flagged a number of recent changes it’s made around children’s accounts and data — such as flipping the default settings to make their accounts private by default and limiting their exposure to certain features that intentionally encourage interaction with other TikTok users if those users are over 16.
On international data transfers it claims to use “approved methods.” However the picture is rather more complicated than TikTok’s statement implies. Transfers of Europeans’ data to China are complicated by there being no EU data adequacy agreement in place with China.
In TikTok’s case, that means, for any personal data transfers to China to be lawful, it needs to have additional “appropriate safeguards” in place to protect the information to the required EU standard.
When there is no adequacy arrangement in place, data controllers can, potentially, rely on mechanisms like Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) or binding corporate rules (BCRs) — and TikTok’s statement notes it uses SCCs.
But — crucially — personal data transfers out of the EU to third countries have faced significant legal uncertainty and added scrutiny since a landmark ruling by the CJEU last year which invalidated a flagship data transfer arrangement between the U.S. and the EU and made it clear that DPAs (such as Ireland’s DPC) have a duty to step in and suspend transfers if they suspect people’s data is flowing to a third country where it might be at risk.
So while the CJEU did not invalidate mechanisms like SCCs entirely they essentially said all international transfers to third countries must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and, where a DPA has concerns, it must step in and suspend those non-secure data flows.
The CJEU ruling means just the fact of using a mechanism like SCCs doesn’t mean anything on its own re: the legality of a particular data transfer. It also amps up the pressure on EU agencies like Ireland’s DPC to be proactive about assessing risky data flows.
Final guidance put out by the European Data Protection Board, earlier this year, provides details on the so-called “special measures” that a data controller may be able to apply in order to increase the level of protection around their specific transfer so the information can be legally taken to a third country.
But these steps can include technical measures like strong encryption — and it’s not clear how a social media company like TikTok would be able to apply such a fix, given how its platform and algorithms are continuously mining users’ data to customize the content they see and in order to keep them engaged with TikTok’s ad platform.
In another recent development, China has just passed its first data protection law.
But, again, this is unlikely to change much for EU transfers. The Communist Party regime’s ongoing appropriation of personal data, through the application of sweeping digital surveillance laws, means it would be all but impossible for China to meet the EU’s stringent requirements for data adequacy. (And if the U.S. can’t get EU adequacy it would be “interesting” geopolitical optics, to put it politely, were the coveted status to be granted to China.)
One factor TikTok can take heart from is that it does likely have time on its side when it comes to the EU’s enforcement of its data protection rules.
The Irish DPC has a huge backlog of cross-border GDPR investigations into a number of tech giants.
It was only earlier this month that Irish regulator finally issued its first decision against a Facebook-owned company — announcing a $267 million fine against WhatsApp for breaching GDPR transparency rules (but only doing so years after the first complaints had been lodged).
The DPC’s first decision in a cross-border GDPR case pertaining to Big Tech came at the end of last year — when it fined Twitter $550,000 over a data breach dating back to 2018, the year GDPR technically begun applying.
The Irish regulator still has scores of undecided cases on its desk — against tech giants including Apple and Facebook. That means that the new TikTok probes join the back of a much criticized bottleneck. And a decision on these probes isn’t likely for years.
On children’s data, TikTok may face swifter scrutiny elsewhere in Europe: The U.K. added some “gold-plaiting” to its version of the EU GDPR in the area of children’s data — and, from this month, has said it expects platforms meet its recommended standards.
It has warned that platforms that don’t fully engage with its Age Appropriate Design Code could face penalties under the U.K.’s GDPR. The U.K.’s code has been credited with encouraging a number of recent changes by social media platforms over how they handle kids’ data and accounts.