This article has been updated to include comments from a press representative from TikTok.
TikTok has suggested that it will not retroactively transfer all EU personal data to its new data site in Ireland when the facility is completed next year, in a decision that could provoke concern among data protection activists in Europe.
The company currently stores EU personal data at sites in the United States and Singapore, but has plans to construct a €420 million site in Ireland in 2021, as a means to allay some of the worries related to the transmission of personal data from the EU, to countries with less stringent data protection regimes.
Speaking to UK lawmakers on Tuesday (22 September), Theo Bertram, TikTok’s director of government relations and public policy in Europe, appeared to suggest that the new data storage facility in Ireland will only be used to house EU data from the time at which it is operational.
Conservative MP Damian Green pressed Bertram on whether “everything will come back from America and Singapore” once the new data site is built, or whether the new facility will only process European data from the time it is established.
“We’ll store Europeans’ data in Ireland from then going forward,” Bertram said. “That’s the plan.”
A TikTok press representative got in touch with EURACTIV to clarify Bertram’s comments, saying that all European data, old and new, would be stored in Ireland from the time it is built.
However, when pressed by EURACTIV on how the data migration process from the US and Singapore to Ireland would take place, the representative was unable to give further details.
Bertram’s comments on Tuesday are likely to provoke wider concern among Europe’s data protection community, following the recent strike down of the EU-US Privacy Shield by the European Court of Justice in July.
A ruling by the court found that the US surveillance regime does not allow for a sufficient degree of protection for European data and risks breaching the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR).
Tuesday’s news from TikTok would mean that EU personal data processed on its platform before the operational launch of the new Irish data centre would remain at risk of falling foul of the bloc’s data protection standards.
The European Commission’s Justice Chief, Didier Reynders, said recently that it is likely there will be no “quick fix” on a new privacy accord.
TikTok hopes that its troubles in the United States may start to subside, following the recent decision to form a ‘tech partnership’ with American computing company Oracle, which will oversee US cloud operations for the firm.
However, the new alliance is unlikely to allay privacy fears in Europe and could actually have the contrary impact.
Last month, data protection foundation the Privacy Collective announced that it plans to take Oracle to court for unlawfully processing the data of millions of Dutch internet users.
For TikTok’s part, Tuesday’s hearing demonstrated that the company is still paying the price for previous mistakes that it experienced as a fledgling social media company.
UK lawmakers probed the Chinese firm on several issues, including its moderation of online content, and its links to its homeland’s Communist Party.
Bertram admitted that the company had made previous mistakes in demoting LGBT content and that now the company would only remove such material if asked by law enforcement authorities in countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Moreover, MPs did not hold back on questioning the company on its links to the Chinese administration, after previous concerns related to the censorship of content expressing political views that were critical of Beijing.
While Bertram attempted to persuade MPs that there is ‘no political censorship’ at all on TikTok, and that the company’s management teams in the EU and the US would not allow for it, he did concede that in 2019, moderators had removed videos that contained material critical of the Chinese state.
“You can understand why we’re all so suspicious, can’t you?” Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson asked Bertram. “We’ve seen a whole series of very disturbing concessions from you about things that your company has done…and your response has been throughout that you’re sorry, but now it’s better.”
[edited by Sam Morgan]