TikTok was dealt fresh setbacks Tuesday as Australia joined a list of Western nations banning the Chinese-owned apps from government devices and Britain fined it for allowing children under 13 to use the social media platform.
The popular video-sharing app has come under growing pressure in Western countries, with the United States urging TikTok to split from its Chinese parent company, Bytedance.
Britain’s data regulator said it fined TikTok 12.7 million ($15.9 million) for allowing up to 1.4 million children under 13 to use the platform in violation of its own rules.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said the Chinese-owned firm broke UK law by failing to obtain the consent of parents or guardians to use the children’s data, after they had set up accounts despite being too young.
Children’s data “may have been used to track them and profile them, potentially delivering harmful, inappropriate content at their very next scroll,” Information Commissioner John Edwards said.
“There are laws in place to make sure our children are as safe in the digital world as they are in the physical world,” he said. “TikTok did not abide by those laws.”
The app’s terms of service do not permit children under 13 to set up accounts.
Last month, Italy’s competition watchdog opened an investigation into TikTok for failing to enforce its own rules on removing “dangerous content” related to suicide and self-harm.
TikTok disputed the ICO’s finding.
“We will continue to review the decision and are considering next steps,” the company said in a statement.
“We invest heavily to help keep under 13s off the platform and our 40,000-strong safety team works around the clock to help keep the platform safe for our community.”
TikTok nevertheless welcomed the ICO’s decision to slash the fine from �27 million, which the regulator had previously warned it might impose.
Western authorities have cracked down on TikTok over fears that user data could be used or abused by Chinese officials.
Australia is the last member of the secretive Five Eyes security alliance to pursue a government TikTok ban, joining the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
France, the Netherlands and the European Commission have made similar moves.
Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the decision followed advice from the country’s intelligence agencies and would begin “as soon as practicable”.
Dreyfus said the government would approve some exemptions on a “case-by-case basis” with “appropriate security mitigations in place”.
Cybersecurity experts have warned that the app — which boasts more than one billion global users — could be used to hoover up data that is then shared with the Chinese government.
Surveys have estimated that as many as seven million Australians use the app — or about a quarter of the population.
In a security notice outlining the ban, the Attorney-General’s Department said TikTok posed “significant security and privacy risks” stemming from the “extensive collection of user data”.
China said it had “lodged stern representations” with Canberra over the ban and urged Australia to “provide Chinese companies with a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment”.
“China has always maintained that the issue of data security should not be used as a tool to generalise the concept of national security, abuse state power and unreasonably suppress companies from other countries,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
Fergus Ryan, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said stripping TikTok from government devices was a “no-brainer”.
“It’s been clear for years that TikTok user data is accessible in China,” Ryan told AFP.
“Banning the use of the app on government phones is a prudent decision given this fact.”
The security concerns are underpinned by a 2017 Chinese law that requires local firms to hand over personal data to the state if it is relevant to national security.
Beijing has denied these reforms pose a threat to ordinary users.
TikTok has said such bans are “rooted in xenophobia”, while insisting it is not owned or operated by the Chinese government.
The company’s Australian spokesman Lee Hunter said it would “never” give data to the Chinese government.
“No one is working harder to make sure this would never be a possibility,” he told Australia’s Channel Seven.
But the firm acknowledged in November that some employees in China could access European user data, and in December it said employees had used the data to spy on journalists.