The government initially created an account on the popular app, which is owned by a Chinese parent company, in an effort to involve young people in the work of parliament.
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But relations between Westminster and Beijing have been tense recently, after seven MPs and colleagues were sanctioned by the Chinese state.
Other countries, such as the US, have also expressed concerns about the app — with many politicians concerned about users’ data falling into the wrong hands.
British Parliament has closed its TikTok account as MPs express concern over ties with China
India, previously TikTok’s largest market, has completely banned the video app.
But why exactly did Parliament close its TikTok account, what are the concerns and what links does TikTok have with China?
What did Parliament say?
A spokesperson for the UK Parliament said: “Based on feedback from MPs, we are closing the UK Parliament’s TikTok account earlier than we had planned.
“The account was a pilot initiative as we tested the platform as a way to reach a younger audience with relevant content about Parliament.”
The account has been locked and its content has been removed, and followers will now see an updated bio that reads: “This account is now closed. Find us at www.parliament.uk.”
What links does TikTok have with China?
TikTok is owned by parent company ByteDance, a Chinese multinational internet technology company headquartered in Beijing.
Founded by Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, ByteDance initially launched apps such as Neihan Duanzi (Inside Jokes), a joke-sharing platform, and Toutiao (Headlines), a news aggregator.
The differentiator of these apps was that they used artificial intelligence, or, an “algorithm,” to learn what kind of content users liked.
Today, Toutiao is China’s largest news aggregator, with 360 million users.
Mr. Zhang’s next step was the launch of Douyin (Shaking Sound), a lip-syncing video recording and sharing platform.
Zhang Yiming Founded Multinational Internet Technology Company ByteDance
The app is modeled after Musical.ly, another China-made lip syncing app popular among young Americans, but enhanced by ByteDance’s algorithm discovery engine.
Within a year, ByteDance released a duplicate app outside of China, with an identical interface and algorithm but separate content. The app was called TikTok.
The app initially went largely unnoticed outside of Asia, but in 2017, when ByteDance bought Musical.ly and had 100 million users, TikTok took off.
It has since grown in popularity, reaching 1 billion users at just over four years old – a milestone that took Facebook, Instagram and YouTube eight years to complete.
What are the concerns?
Many MPs are concerned about data breaches and national security.
In a letter to the Speakers of the Commons and Lords, they said they were “surprised and disappointed” that an account had been launched after “recent reports have made it clear… that TikTok data is routinely transferred to China.”
Nus Ghani shared the letter on her Twitter
Since ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing, there are concerns that the company – like other major Chinese companies – is subject to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
The letter, written primarily by Tory MP Nus Ghani, continues: “The prospect of Xi Jinping’s government accessing personal data on our children’s phones should be a cause for great concern.”
This comes after seven MPs and colleagues were sanctioned by the Beijing government for speaking out about human rights violations.
And the UK isn’t the only country concerned about the app.
In 2020, India banned TikTok and dozens of other apps with links to China.
Though the ban was sparked by a border dispute, India claimed the apps were “stealing and secretly passing on information from Indian users.”
Two months later, former US President Donald Trump issued an executive order stipulating that TikTok must be sold to a US company within 45 days or else he would be banned.
The order cited the “huge chunks” of information the app collected that may have enabled China to “track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build files of personal information for blackmail, and conduct espionage.”
ByteDance successfully challenged the order in court.
How did MPs react to the decision?
Ms Ghani wrote on Twitter: “Thank you @CommonsSpeaker & @LorSpeaker for standing up for our values and protecting our data.
“Common sense prevails.”
Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith welcomed the decision to close the TikTok account following pressure from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
He told the PA news agency: “We are pleased that Parliament understood there was a problem and closed it.
“It’s important that others look at that now and we need to start talking to people about not using TikTok.”
What did TikTok say?
In the past, TikTok has tried to assuage fears by keeping foreign users’ data out of China.
ByteDance is based in the Cayman Islands and TikTok’s data is stored in the US and Singapore.
The app itself does not work in China.
But a BuzzFeed report published in June includes a leaked voice recording, which quoted a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety Department as saying, “Everything is seen in China.”
Commenting on Parliament’s decision, a TikTok spokeswoman said: “While it is disappointing that Parliament will no longer be able to connect with the millions of people who use TikTok in the UK, we reiterate the offer to expressed their concerns and clarify any inaccuracies about our platform.”
The company has offered to meet with any MP who wants to learn more about how user data is handled.
Theo Bertram, vice president of the app for government relations and public policy in Europe, told MPs in July. “We have never been asked to provide TikTok user data to the Chinese government, and we wouldn’t if we asked.”