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Home / News and Insights / Insights / EU launches investigation into TikTok under the Digital Services Act

In February 2024, the European Commission initiated formal proceedings looking into video-hosting provider and tech giant TikTok. They are investigating whether TikTok may have breached the Digital Services Act (DSA) in areas linked to the protection of minors, advertising transparency, data access for researchers, as well as the risk management of addictive design and harmful content. TikTok, along with other big tech firms including Apple, Meta, and YouTube, were designated as Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs) under the DSA as they host over 45 million users per month. The DSA applies more stringent regulations to those VLOPs, as the bigger the company, the bigger the risk they pose. The Commission has made it clear that this is an evidence gathering process in the first instance, aimed at conducting interviews and requesting further information from the company. If found guilty at the end of this process, TikTok could find itself with a heavy fine or even temporary suspension of the platform.

Below, we consider some of the implications of the EU Commission’s investigation into TikTok on the company itself and what it means for the wider online community in general.

The ramifications of the investigation for TikTok and big tech firms generally

The EU has made it clear that it wants to create a safe, predictable, and trusted online environment for EU citizens. The DSA has therefore been brought in to address the challenges highlighted by the digital economy in order to achieve this outcome. TikTok and other big tech firms, such as X, Meta, and Apple, pose a large risk to the online environment and, as such, are subject to more stringent requirements under the DSA. TikTok has not yet been found guilty of any breach; however, they are the subject of a further information request based on data that has been previously provided to the EU Commission. If they were to be found to have breached the DSA, they could face a fine of up to 6% of their annual worldwide turnover in the preceding financial year. Interestingly, if the app itself is found to be in breach of, for example, risk management of addictive design, this could result in the app having to be redesigned. This raises the question of whether they would then operate a different version of the app in the EU or whether changes prompted by the DSA would be applied globally.

What the ramifications might be for companies more broadly

The obligations on companies under the DSA vary and increase cumulatively depending on the company’s size and the risks posed by their activities. This means that an ‘online platform’ will have more obligations than a ‘mere conduit’ or ‘hosting provider’, and ‘very large online platforms’ (such as TikTok and X) have the highest level of obligation. Smaller companies still have obligations under the DSA, so should not ignore the lessons from any enforcement actions against bigger players. While the DSA is EU law, many of the obligations are similar to those found in the UK’s Online Safety Act 2023. If the European Commission takes enforcement action under the DSA against practices that might also breach the Online Safety Act, then it could create pressure for Ofcom to follow suit in the UK.

What the investigations says, if anything, about the EU’s readiness to enforce the DSA

Since coming into force, the European Commission has opened formal proceedings against two of the biggest VLOPs, TikTok and X. The Commission announced the proceedings against Elon Musk’s social media platform, X, on 18 December 2023 and they are focused on areas including failure to block illegal content and inadequate measures against disinformation. With the total number of VLOPs amounting to 17 companies, an investigation into two of them in the space of three months is a clear statement of the Commission’s intent to enforce the new regime.

This article was first published in Tech+, a newsletter from our tech and innovation team designed to help readers unpack complex topics in the tech space and keep up-to-date with the changes across this rapidly evolving sector. Be the first to receive the next edition and subscribe here.

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