TikTok is beginning to feel the sting of political and regulatory pressure in Europe, where the Chinese-owned app has largely evaded the scrutiny it’s faced in the U.S.
E.U. Commissioner of the Internal Market Thierry Breton warned TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a meeting this month the bloc could ban the app if it didn’t comply with new rules on digital content well ahead of a Sep. 1 deadline.
That’s a marked shift from the E.U.’s near silence on TikTok, while U.S. lawmakers have been aggressive — banning the app from federal devices in December over national security concerns. A proposed bipartisan bill also seeks to block the app from operating in the U.S.
It’s not that the E.U. is soft on tech. Europe has fined U.S. tech giants for violating the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation.
The difference with TikTok is that the app has kept out of the crosshairs of commercial interests in Europe.
“There is no political demand for investigation into Chinese entities,” Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, the director of think tank the European Centre for International Political Economy, said in an interview in December.
“The user base of TikTok is a lot bigger than a lot of people in Europe think,” he said. But, he added, “you’re not going to look very closely if they don’t steal too much from your ad revenue.”
TikTok had about 275 million monthly active users in Europe as of December, according to Sensor Tower’s Abe Yousef, noting that’s more than one third of Europe’s population of about 750 million.
TikTok was the most-downloaded social media app last year in Italy and Spain, according to data.ai, formerly called App Annie. The app held second place in France and Germany, the data showed.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook parent Meta, ranked first among social media app downloads in France and Germany, and third in Italy and Spain, according to data.ai.
Meta reported $29.06 billion in European revenue in 2021, a region the company defined as including Russia and Turkey. In contrast, TikTok recorded turnover of just $531 million in the European Union in 2021, according to the latest available filing in the U.K. But that was well over four times what was disclosed for 2020.
“It takes a little bit of time for the European Commission to get its act together on these issues,” said Dexter Thillien, lead tech and telecoms analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
“It’s not because of a lack of willingness from the European Commission to do something,” Thillien told CNBC in a phone interview. “They’ve got their hands full with bigger companies.”