Europe’s crackdown on Big Tech omitted TikTok — but now that’s set to change

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KEY POINTS

  • Unlike its larger American peers, TikTok hasn’t faced the kinds of mega fines or legal penalties that Google, Facebook-owner Meta or Amazon have in the EU over the years.
  • TikTok has stayed out of regulatory scrutiny partly because it’s kept out of the crosshairs of commercial interests in Europe.
  • That doesn’t mean political leaders and legislators in Europe aren’t worried.
  • Moritz Korner, a German lawmaker, said the app poses “several unacceptable risks for European users.”
  • At the executive level, the European Commission’s tone on TikTok has begun to change.

TikTok was the most-downloaded social media app last year in Italy and Spain, according to data.ai, formerly called App Annie. The app held second place in France and Germany, the data showed.

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook parent Meta, ranked first among social media app downloads in France and Germany, and third in Italy and Spain, according to data.ai.

Meta reported $29.06 billion in European revenue in 2021, a region the company defined as including Russia and Turkey. In contrast, TikTok recorded turnover of just $531 million in the European Union in 2021, according to the latest available filing in the U.K. But that was well over four times what was disclosed for 2020.

“It takes a little bit of time for the European Commission to get its act together on these issues,” said Dexter Thillien, lead tech and telecoms analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

“It’s not because of a lack of willingness from the European Commission to do something,” Thillien told CNBC in a phone interview. “They’ve got their hands full with bigger companies.”

TikTok isn’t yet a behemoth at the scale of companies like MetaAlphabet and Amazon when it comes to social media, advertising and e-commerce. But TikTok has become so popular that its app has inspired copycat products, such as Meta’s Reels short video feature.

More than half of people aged 16 to 24 in France and Germany use TikTok, according to data.ai.

Since its launch in 2016, TikTok has amassed a worldwide monthly user base of more than 1 billion, and cemented the careers of well-known media personalities, from the D’Amelio sisters to Addison Rae.

That gives it an attractive pool of data to train its algorithms to target users aggressively with content most aligned with their interests. TikTok’s parent, Beijing-based ByteDance, has found similar success in China with a local version of the app, called Douyin.

A big fear among U.S. intelligence officials — and increasingly lawmakers in Europe, as well — is that Beijing could influence how TikTok targets its users to engage in propaganda or censorship.

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