The US is getting increasingly aggressive about TikTok. In March, the House of Representatives passed a bill that could see the Chinese social media app banned across the entire country due to security concerns.

If signed into law, the bill would give ByteDance — the company that owns TikTok — six months to sell the platform. If this doesn’t happen, TikTok won’t be accessible to users in the United States. While there’s still a long way to go before this becomes reality, the intent is clear: the US government will ban software it sees as a threat. 

This got us thinking — could the same thing happen in Europe? Would the EU ever try and abolish TikTok?

The signs are there. In 2023, the EU banned TikTok from the devices of the European Parliament, European Commission, and EU Council members. This was done due to “cybersecurity concerns, in particular regarding data protection and collection of data by third parties.”

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Further than that, it was “strongly recommended” for MEPs, their assistants, and anyone involved in the above bodies to remove the app from their personal devices too.

So could the European Union follow the United States’ lead and try to put a stop to TikTok on the continent? Let’s find out.

Will the EU ban TikTok?

The short answer is no. There’s almost no way that the EU itself will issue a member-state-wide ban of the social media app. Experts we spoke to were unanimous about that. 

Ronan Murphy — the director of the Digital Innovation Initiative at CEPA, the Center for European Policy Analysis — was blunt in his analysis, saying an EU TikTok ban was “unlikely.”

This was echoed by Matej Šimalčík, the executive director of CEIAS (Central European Institute of Asian Studies) who says it is “very unlikely.”

One reason why the TikTok ban probably won’t materialise is simple: it’s not something the European Union really does. As Murphy from CEPA explains, “the Digital Markets Act (DMA), Digital Services Act (DSA), and GDPR are the weapons of choice for the European Commission in controlling technology usage and data protection, not banning apps.”

Šimalčík concurs, saying that the governing body’s approach to technology issues doesn’t involve outlawing things, instead it focuses on “investigating specific legal breaches and sanctioning them.”

In many ways, this displays the difference between the legal systems of the USA and EU, with the former having a common law system, and the latter using civil law frameworks — something we’ve discussed before in relation to the DMA. Generally, common law will leave things alone until there needs to be action, while civil law concentrates more on broad regulation.

Simply put, banning is not the way the EU does things.

Another reason TikTok won’t disappear from Europe entirely — and something that both Murphy and Šimalčík were keen to stress — is that national security is the province of the member states. Because each country is in charge of its own security, the EU won’t step in with blanket bans. That’s up to the nations themselves.

The ripple effect

Yet this means that individual countries in the EU could ban TikTok — and this is where things start to get interesting. What happens if the US actually bans TikTok? 

The US is such a large presence politically, economically, and culturally that its actions have a huge influence on European nations. 

“A US ban on the app could motivate a chain reaction in some of the EU member states that closely align their security policy with that of the US,” Šimalčík says.

Adding to this, Murphy tells me that if the US goes ahead with blocking TikTok, he thinks “there might be bans at a member state level on security grounds.” 

Potentially, enough momentum could be created by the United States dispensing of TikTok that several EU member states would do the same, either because they want to align their policy with the US, or assure the public they’re willing to act against perceived threats.

There’s a similar precedent to this in the past. When the US began its ban of Huawei and ZTE 5G equipment in 2019, a raft of European nations following suit, including the UK, France, and Germany.

Still, it’s important to note that Murphy believes the chance of an outright TikTon ban in the US is unlikely, as the bill has to pass in the Senate and “overcome the inevitable legal challenges” before it’s officially ratified. 

So while, according to Šimalčík, the EU will stick to “its typical approach of precisely targeting specific problems and remedying them,” its member states won’t necessarily follow that same path.

Just how dangerous is TikTok?

All this paints a slightly confusing picture. It’s clear that European lawmakers are concerned about TikTok and its influence, so it feels somewhat unintuitive that it’s still allowed to operate.

The US talk of a ban makes it clear the country sees it as a threat to national security, while the EU approach gives the message that it just needs a few tweaks to be up to standard — so what’s the truth?

“TikTok is a powerful app that is open to abuse,” Murphy says. It has a large and active user base and bad actors could use it to spread false or harmful information at incredibly rapid rates. 

Beyond this, there are also global political elements in play. “It is well accepted that TikTok, and all big Chinese tech firms, are under some level of control by the Chinese authorities,” Murphy tells me, “so TikTok is a China ‘vector’ in that sense.”

Šimalčík supports much of this. He says that the Chinese government could force ByteDance “to share its data with the party-state apparatus for the sake of advancing China’s political interests.”

This, he explains, has its roots in China’s 2015 State Security Act and 2017 Intelligence Act, something that “obliges all Chinese citizens and companies to assist the government in matters related to China’s national security and intelligence activity.”

Nationhood is really the key point here. “From a national security perspective, the country of origin makes a big difference in evaluating whether those breaches are ‘merely’ legal problems, or also translate into a security risk,” Šimalčík says.

While apps like Facebook and Instagram have their own privacy concerns, they come from an allied country. But TikTok? And China? That’s a nation many in the West view far more suspiciously. 

What happens next?

In regards to the US, the likelihood is not much — besides a lot of press coverage. Even though it has fired a warning shot across ByteDance’s bow, the chance of the ban coming to pass is quite low. It could happen, sure, but it’d be a surprise.

When it comes to the EU, things are less clear. As Murphy pointed out earlier, the EU will try to use its toolbox of regulations — the aforementioned DSA, DMA, and GDPR — to manage and mitigate TikTok. 

The issue comes with enforcement, something Murphy sees as “a Sisyphean task.” Considering the EU has had issues doing this in the past, it means it’s like “the threat of abuse will remain.”

It seems, then, we’re at somewhat of an impasse. The US is being bold with little chance of success, and the EU is taking a subtler approach with a poor track record of enforcement.

The hope is that TikTok sees this pressure, finds a way to decouple from the Chinese state, and gives solid assurances on any privacy concerns — but that’s somewhat of a pipe dream. Currently, the way the EU and US are dealing with TikTok feels like a lot of bark and little bite.

So what does that mean? Well, if you’re a European TikTok fan, you probably don’t need to worry about the app going anywhere soon.

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