TikTok app icon on smartphone screen showing TikTok ban

Data Privacy and Geopolitical Issues Collide – The Real Issue in the TikTok Ban

Social media companies are no strangers to government scrutiny, and TikTok is the latest firm to become embroiled in a geopolitical storm.

Reading the news in recent weeks, you might get the impression that the clock is ticking for TikTok. Lawmakers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have already banned TikTok on government phones, and this week, the White House went one step further by backing legislation that would give the U.S. Department of Commerce sweeping authority to restrict the app’s usage – and even ban TikTok outright. The motivating force behind these moves? TikTok is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, and Western leaders are concerned about how much information stored by the app is being accessed by Chinese government officials, presenting a potential risk to national security.

However, while national security is always a hot topic for government officials, the average marketer or consumer may not be so tapped into the geopolitical issues du jour. For many people, these highly politicized efforts to curb TikTok’s use and influence are more likely to be met with a shrug than with support. That means that despite the political pressure, it’s unlikely that many in TikTok’s huge user base – including both individuals and brands – will turn their back on the app soon.

Putting politics aside

For those of us passionate about data privacy and respectful data practices, the reality that TikTok will likely survive current political attempts to thwart its power and influence is a blow. Politics aside, the truth is that everyone – lawmakers, brand owners, marketers and consumers alike – would do well to understand more about TikTok’s dodgy data practices and why they deserve the ire of all who use it.

It should not take the threat of a government ban to wake us up to the shocking realities of TikTok’s data malpractice.

Brands behaving badly

The TikTop app has been accused of using aggressive data harvesting tactics that include accessing contact lists, calendars, and regular location updates. This month, French authorities fined TikTok €5 million for how the platform handles online cookie tracking, which breaches European data protection laws. Last year it was unveiled that TikTok employees inappropriately gained access to users’ personal data. The list goes on.

We’re all familiar with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and how the firm misused and manipulated its users’ data. That scandal was something of a watershed moment, because it put data privacy on the map. Similarly, when Elon Musk took over Twitter, data privacy and ethics were catapulted into the national conversation, and marketers quickly moved to drop marketing ties with the company. What this tells us is that marketers are making positive moves that balance return on ad spend with consumer expectation and brand positioning.

The way we talk about marketing, data, and consumer power is changing. TikTok’s bad data practices are a continuation of this trend, and we’re asking brands to take note.

An opportunity for marketers

We could be at a tipping point with how brands and marketers respond to data privacy. When we think about the core enterprise values that have soared in popularity over the past few years, sustainability and diversity immediately come to mind. Now, brands are beginning to talk about respectful data practices in the same way sustainability might have been talked about a decade ago. This is a welcome move, but we must ensure that brands act. We cannot let championing data privacy be an empty platitude. It’s not enough to just say the right things because it’s convenient, brands must put in the work and demonstrate their commitment to good data practices.

This represents a golden opportunity for brands and their marketing teams. Many marketers are beginning to recognise the significance of data privacy as a core business value. Some brands are taking action: moving to privacy-first data collection models and testing the waters with respectful, consumer-first privacy policies. They’re weighing up the short-term costs (potential for lower return on ad spends) with long-term gains (meaningful, cast-iron relationships with consumers).

This was the same story for sustainability. Many brands took an upfront hit when they chose to source responsible, sustainable materials for their products or shift to ethical farming practices. In the short term, their operational costs increased, while their returns were lower. But short-term thinking has always been the enemy of meaningful growth. Those firms which acted early and decisively on the question of sustainability have been more than compensated for their foresight. Sustainability has now become such an important consumer value, and the brands who were the early adopters of sustainable practices are the ones reaping the rewards.

In our surveys and discussions with brands, we estimate that approximately a quarter of marketers are open to the conversation of making their data practices more responsible and ethical. We can think of this group as the early adopters, the potential change makers, and they’re beginning to form a groundswell that could change the data landscape entirely. If enough brands get behind responsible data as a driving business value, the big players in tech and social media – including TikTok –  will be forced to sit up, take notice, and make changes themselves.

There’s a growing awareness among consumers about how their data is collected, used, and stored. Marketers know this, and are realising that they can no longer turn a blind eye to the bad data handling done on behalf of the companies and apps they work with. When audiences and customers hand over their data to a trusted brand, the brand itself has a responsibility to protect this data – and that includes how other third-party brands and apps might go on to use it. If TikTok continues to use its users’ data in opaque ways, more consumers may end up putting pressure on the brands and companies they use to drop ties with TikTok, or to demand better data protection. This can only be a good thing.

While we wait for the social media companies to become fully transparent and show us that they’re taking all their users’ privacy and security seriously, it’s up to the brands and marketers to be the change makers. Soon data privacy will be the issue for brands. So don’t get left behind: consumers will remember the companies who respected their data from the get-go.