A week after EURACTIV revealed that the European Commission prohibited its employees from having TikTok on smartphones used for work, the ban extended to other EU institutions, prompting a riled reaction from Beijing.
Last Thursday (23 February), EURACTIV revealed that the EU executive ordered all employees to uninstall the video app from their corporate devices and personal devices having work apps such as email over data protection and cybersecurity concerns.
The move echoed similar decisions elsewhere, notably the United States federal and state governments, but it was the first European public body to take such a decision. Since then, the other two main EU institutions, the Council and Parliament, have followed the Commission’s example.
On Wednesday (1 March), China responded to the EU bans, warning that they jeopardised international faith in the European market and accusing the EU of abusing security to restrict competition from Chinese companies.
The Commission gave staff members until 15 March to uninstall the Chinese-owned app or lose access to corporate apps like Skype for Business and email accounts.
The decision, which attracted significant worldwide attention, was taken “to protect the Commission’s data and increase its cybersecurity”, the EU executive told employees in an email.
In Brussels, the Commission’s move set off a chain of similar decisions by EU institutions. Last week, both the European Council and the EU’s foreign policy arm, the External Action Service, issued their own ban, telling diplomats and officials to delete the app from their devices.
The European Parliament followed suit on Tuesday (28 February), setting 20 March as the deadline for removing the app from corporate devices. The institutions also strongly recommended EU lawmakers and officials delete TikTok from personal phones.
“Cybersecurity must be more important than having a social media app on your phone. If TikTok wants to be allowed on EP devices, it has to work with the EP and others to make sure the app meets our security standards.” European Parliament’s Vice President for Cybersecurity Dita Charanzová told EURACTIV.
Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that such bans would “dampen the international community’s confidence in the business environment in the EU”.
“The EU claims to be the most open market in the world, but recently it has been taking restrictive measures and unreasonably suppressing other countries’ companies on the grounds of national security,” Ning said.
In other words, Beijing accused the EU institutions of abusing the concept of national security to restrict competition to successful Chinese companies.
Concern has grown over TikTok’s security in recent months following revelations by Forbes that the app had been used to track journalists reporting on the company and identify employees who were leaking information to them.
In November, the company also admitted that user data was accessible to employees based at its Beijing headquarters. The company’s CEO Shou Zi Chew toured Brussels in January to reassure EU top officials, with little result.
“TikTok is enjoyed by 125 million EU citizens and potentially depriving users from access to their representatives is a self-defeating step, especially in our shared fight against misinformation and when this action is being taken on the basis of fears rather than facts,” a TikTok spokesperson told EURACTIV.
The Commission’s decision to issue an interdiction on the social media app followed similar decisions in the United States. In December, staff and lawmakers in the House of Representatives were told to delete the app and prohibited from downloading it.
A wider ban on the use of the app on devices provided to employees of federal government agencies was also approved as part of a broader spending bill.
On Monday (27 February), the White House announced that these agencies now have 30 days to delete TikTok or any app from its parent company ByteDance. Even before the vote, however, multiple US government departments had already introduced their own bans, as have over half of the state governments.
A vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week also saw a debate between lawmakers on whether to hand President Joe Biden the power to issue a blanket ban on the app for Americans. This measure would require the assent of both houses of Congress.
“We repeat our calls to EU institutions for due process and equal treatment,” the TikTok representative added.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]