France in turn looks at the “shadow areas” of TikTok

France in turn looks at the “shadow areas” of TikTok

After the United States, Europe and France put TikTok in their sights. The short video application claims more than 15 million users in France and its success with advertisers has not waned. Since Monday, March 13, his Chinese origins have earned him the grill of a commission of inquiry in the Senate.

Much criticized across the Atlantic for its supposed links with the Chinese intelligence services, the application created in Beijing but managed in part from the United States and Ireland for its activities outside China presents “grey areas” according to French senators. By the end of the summer, the latter will tackle via hearings to shed light on the national specificities of the algorithm which personalizes their video stream for each user. It is thus a question of verifying “if these differences in functioning have the object or the effect of serving a strategy tending to harm foreign users of TikTok, the cohesion or the security of foreign States”, they note in the explanatory memorandum of the commission of inquiry.

A hearing under oath and criticism

For their first hearing, the senators questioned artificial intelligence researcher Marc Faddoul, whom TikTok considers critical of him, under oath.

For more than an hour at the end of the day, the algorithm specialist portrayed an application as open to criticism as its American rivals on questions of automatic selection of recommended content. While adding that the origin of the application coming from an undemocratic state raises additional questions. Messages evoking the events in Tiananmen Square have, for example, been censored there in the past.

The researcher also drew the senators’ attention to the “heating” technique, which allows platform employees to amplify the scope of the themes of their choice. “We don’t have proof that political messages have been pushed in this way, but the functionality exists,” he explained.

TikTok caught in a vice

While the question of transferring TikTok data to China is hot for the European CNILs, elected officials will also look into compliance with the application’s obligations in terms of the protection of personal data. But this commission of inquiry is not the only turn of the screw in the vice which seems to be slowly tightening around TikTok in France. In the government, we are also very attentive to the risk posed by the application, both in terms of influence on behalf of a foreign power – which is more with a young audience – than of espionage.

Following a meeting on Friday March 10 between the Minister of Digital Transition Jean-Noël Barrot and the Secretary General of TikTok, Erich Andersen, Bercy announced that France was awaiting details as to the timetable for the deployment of recent commitments from TikTok on data security. The group says it has found a European partner to control who has behind-the-scenes access to app information. But without indicating the name of this partner or even the date of implementation of this plan.

Towards compliance with the European DSA

On a European tour, the TikTok spokesperson met on Monday with the president of Arcom, Roch-Olivier Maistre. The authority in charge of regulating digital platforms on the issue of content was already alarmed last November by the opacity of the TikTok teams. His questionnaire on the means against online misinformation came back to him with very incomplete answers. Arcom will probably be in charge from next year of enforcing the European Digital Service Act and its share of content moderation obligations on major digital platforms like TikTok.

Before that, France will undoubtedly have supported its thinking about the banning of the application of Chinese origin on the smartphones of civil servants. Following a decision by the European Commission banning TikTok from its officials’ smartphones for fear of spying, government spokesman Olivier Veran had assured at the beginning of March that this rule already prevailed in certain sovereign ministries and that the extension of this measure in other administrations was under study.

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