Sunday 04 Jun 2023
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(March 9): ByteDance Ltd-owned TikTok wants to convince European governments that it is an industry leader in data protection, rather than a Chinese-owned app that warrants the wave of bans across the continent.

The company outlined plans on Wednesday (March 8) to build three European data centres to store information on TikTok’s 150 million users in the region locally with the help of an independent third company that will oversee data access controls. Once operational, the data centres will cost the company €1.2 billion (US$1.3 billion or RM5.73 billion) annually.

Similar to the company’s Project Texas in the US, TikTok’s Project Clover is meant to assure concerned governments that the Chinese Communist Party cannot access Europeans’ data either through the front door, via official legal requests, or back door. It follows the White House endorsement on Tuesday of a bipartisan bill that could give the president authority to ban or force a sale of TikTok. 

“The Chinese government has never asked us for data and if they would, we would refuse to do so,” Theo Bertram, TikTok’s European policy chief, told reporters. He said that the company’s approach to data storage would make it impossible for the Chinese government to compel TikTok to hand over European data and that the data access controls and audit would minimise the risk of back-door access to the data.

The video-sharing platform has faced a new wave of concern from US allies, most recently with a series of European Union institutions telling their employees to delete the app from their phones. Germany and Canada followed suit, and the Netherlands is considering similar steps.

It marks a dramatic change in tone in Europe from just months ago, when TikTok chief executive officer Shou Zi Chew met with European commissioners in Brussels. During the meeting, officials raised privacy concerns but reassured the company that it was fine to do business in Europe if it adhered to European data protection and content moderation rules.

European data is currently stored in data centres in Singapore and the US, but will be migrated to secure environment in Europe, built by a European company, over three years, Bertram said. Company employees outside of Europe will still be able to access the data, but only for specific reasons and with strict access protocols that another company will audit. 

Bertram described Project Clover as a “move from meeting industry standards to setting a new stadard altogether when it comes to data security”.

Bertram stressed that the company is a “global” company rather than Chinese, and compared TikTok’s relationship to Bytedance to Google’s ownership of YouTube. He added that the company’s CEO is from Singapore and it has major US investors including KKR and Sequoia.

Elaine Fox, TikTok’s head of privacy in Europe, said the company has to allow data transfers to other countries for European content to be shared outside the continent. “There’s certain limited information which needs to travel in order to ensure we can have a global product and users can share content widely.”

In recent weeks, the European Commission — followed by other institutions including the European Parliament — instructed staff to delete the app off their work phones citing data privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

A commission politician said the instruction to delete the app was made as a precautionary measure, adding that there was no immediate threat to commission staff. But the move indicated a sharp change in tone from the continent. The company decried the move as “un-European”.

TikTok acknowledged a massive data scandal at the end of last year, where a number of employees had accessed users’ personal data, including journalists as part of an attempt to crack down on leaks in the media. The company said those employees were terminated. 

The US has been far more aggressive in its approach to TikTok, with some lawmakers proposing plans to completely ban the app from the country or force ByteDance to sell the video sharing platform.

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