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TikTok shares user data with Chinese government, Tharoor tells Lok Sabha; company denies his claims

Photo of Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor. Source: Gopzonline/<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shashi_tharoor.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>. CC BY-SA 3.0

On July 1, during the Zero Hour in the Lok Sabha, Shashi Tharoor said that there were reports that the Chinese government received data from TikTok through the wholly state-owned China Telecom, PTI reported. He described it as a “national security issue”. Tharoor drew attention to India’s vulnerability to data leakage and surveillance in the absence of a robust data protection framework. He urged the government to “introduce a comprehensive legal framework to protect fundamental right to privacy and save democracy of the country”.

Tharoor cited the $5.7 million civil penalty that the US Federal Trade Commission had imposed on TikTok for violating American child privacy laws in February. The company had “illegally collected images, voice recordings, and geolocation” of children, some younger than 13, and thereby violated the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), NBC had reported.

Bytedance, which owns TikTok, categorically refuted Tharoor’s claims and told MediaNama:

These claims are simply untrue. The privacy and security of our users is a top priority for TikTok, and we abide by local laws and regulations in the markets where we operate. Our Indian users’ data is stored in the US and Singapore at industry-leading third-party data centres. TikTok does not operate in the People’s Republic of China and their government has no access to TikTok users’ data, nor does it have any existing partnership with China Telecom.

MediaNama has also asked Bytedance if it shares TikTok users’ data with any third party, including national governments, and is awaiting their response.

TikTok’s repeated run-ins with Indian authorities

TikTok, which has 200 million MAUs in India, has repeatedly run into trouble with Indian authorities. In April, TikTok was banned in India by the Madras High Court, which said it was spreading pornography, potentially exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting its the mental health of its users. The ban, however, was lifted on April 24.

The company was also called by the Election Commission of India ahead of the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, to talk about taking down content that violated the ECI’s guidelines during the polls. Since then, TikTok has introduced an age gate in India that disallows users younger than 13 from creating accounts on the platform; moderated content; and created a Safety Centre – a resource that gives users tools and information to protect themselves online – in 10 Indian languages.

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