EU opens probe into TikTok under Digital Services Act

Following reports that TikTok potentially faces hefty fines in Europe over child safety concerns, the European Commission confirmed Monday (February 19) that it is launching formal proceedings against the video-sharing platform under the recently implemented Digital Services Act (DSA).

The move marks the first major enforcement action under the new legislation, raising concerns for the popular social media app and potentially setting a precedent for other large platforms operating in the European Union.

The Commission’s investigation focuses on TikTok’s potential breaches of the DSA in four key areas: protection of minors, advertising transparency, data access for researchers, and risk management of addictive design and harmful content.

Concerns have been raised about the potential for harmful content, including age-inappropriate material and cyberbullying, to be easily accessible to young users on TikTok. The Commission will assess whether TikTok is implementing “appropriate” safeguards to protect children online. particularly with default privacy settings for minors.

In terms of advertising transparency, the probe will look into whether TikTok is complying with DSA obligations to provide “a searchable and reliable repository for advertisements” on its platform.

The Commission will also investigate whether TikTok’s algorithms and design elements are contributing to excessive screen time or promoting the spread of harmful content. The probe will focus on “the design of TikTok’s system, including algorithmic systems, that may stimulate behavioral addictions and/ or create so-called ‘rabbit hole effects’,” the Commission said.

“Such assessment is required to counter potential risks for the exercise of the fundamental right to the person’s physical and mental well-being, the respect of the rights of the child as well as its impact on radicalization processes,” it added.

Additionally, the EU will evaluate whether TikTok is fulfilling its obligation under the DSA to provide researchers with access to data for research purposes. 

The investigation follows months of scrutiny by the Commission, which has been closely monitoring TikTok’s compliance with the DSA since its designation as a ‘Very Large Online Platform’ (VLOP) in April 2023. VLOPs, defined as platforms with over 45 million monthly active users in the EU, face stricter obligations under the DSA compared to smaller platforms.

Other VLOPs that the EU identified include Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, X, and YouTube.

The probe into TikTok was announced two days after the DSA started applying to all online platforms in the EU. 

The Commission will now gather further evidence and engage in dialogue with TikTok to address the concerns. This process could involve requesting additional information, conducting inspections, and potentially issuing recommendations or warnings.

If the Commission finds that TikTok has indeed breached the DSA, it has the power to impose various sanctions, including fines of up to 6% of the platform’s global turnover.

A fine of 6% could translate to roughly $564 million for TikTok, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.

The investigation marks the latest regulatory hurdle for TikTok after the company was hit with a €345 million (approx. $372 million) fine by the Irish Data Protection Commission for violating regulations on children’s privacy. Last year, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office imposed a £12.7 million ($16 million) fine on TikTok for a number of data protection breaches including ‘misusing children’s data’.

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