TikTok has enjoyed huge growth over the last couple of years, and events in 2020 appear to have supercharged that growth, making it the most downloaded app of the year globally. This rapid growth has seen TikTok surpass established social media platforms like Twitter and SnapChat to more than 800 million monthly active users.
Amid a pandemic, riots and sweeping social movements, TikTok has provided not only serious commentary on the issues we face, but also a brief reprieve from the real world in the form of dance crazes and perfect lip syncs delivered to our phones 15 seconds at a time.
On the flip side, this rapid success has brought serious scrutiny, as governments have become concerned about the Chinese-owned app and the potential risks posed by privacy issues, security threats and allegations of censorship. These concerns stem from the questions around whether or not TikTok parent company ByteDance shares data with the Chinese government.
The sharing of data from what appears to be a platform mostly focused on fun, light-hearted content may not seem all that important, but apps like TikTok are actually able to harvest huge amounts of data from users that download and use them. To sign up, users have to provide details like their email address, phone number and personal details that are familiar to the majority of social account signups. However, the TikTok app also requires permissions on user location, audio and camera recordings and contacts. This is significantly more data than apps like Twitter and Facebook collect as standard and could potentially give access to the locations and private content of close to a billion people globally.
TikTok has moved to combat concerns around privacy and data sharing and has recently appointed an American CEO, Kevin Meyer who previously headed up Disney’s streaming operation. Critics remain concerned however, citing China’s national intelligence law that effectively forces any internet companies to provide data to the government on request.
So, could the UK really ban TikTok? It wouldn’t be the first country to do so – India, which is TikTok’s biggest market outside of China with nearly 200 million users, has already banned the app and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made strong hints that there could be restrictions on the app in the US in the coming weeks. Even Amazon asked employees to delete the app citing security concerns, although it has now backtracked on that request.
Action by companies and other governments doesn’t always mean the UK will follow suit, but it is safe to say that with 5 million UK users and growing, the issue will be examined closely the UK government. There is also recent precedent for following other countries in the banning of Chinese companies access to UK consumers, with the ban of Huawei 5G infrastructure last week.
With a growing user base and an increasingly important demographic highly engaged on the app (18-24 year olds are the largest age group) the banning of TikTok in the UK would certainly have a big impact for both users and marketers. The next few weeks will provide a clearer indication of the fate in of the app in the UK, especially if other countries move to significant restrictions or outright bans.