EU opens formal probe of TikTok under Digital Services Act, citing child safety, risk management & other concerns

Anton Ioffe - February 19th 2024 - 7 minutes read

In an era where digital platforms wield unprecedented influence over the fabric of society, the European Union's rigorous stance on enforcing online safety and transparency standards heralds a new chapter of accountability with its investigation into TikTok under the Digital Services Act (DSA). As we navigate this labyrinthine probe, we unveil the intricate dance between regulatory frameworks and platform operations, casting a spotlight on critical concerns such as child safety and risk management. Through an exploration of the DSA's objectives, the genesis of the EU's concerns, the investigative procedures, and the potential sweeping repercussions for TikTok and similar platforms, this article aims to demystify the complexities of ensuring a safer digital environment for all users. Join us on this insightful journey to understand how the landmark probe could redefine the landscape of digital platform governance in the European Union and beyond.

Unpacking the Digital Services Act (DSA)

The Digital Services Act (DSA) stands as a pivotal regulatory framework within the European Union, targeting the creation of safer digital environments. Its overarching aim is to protect users navigating the vast terrain of online platforms, ensuring that their digital experiences are not only enriching but also secure. To achieve this, the DSA introduces comprehensive measures that necessitate a high degree of transparency and accountability from the platforms hosting user content. This legislation fundamentally transforms how online platforms operate, mandating them to be more transparent about the algorithms they use for content recommendation and to exhibit diligence in moderating content, thereby prioritizing user safety and information integrity.

Given the rapid proliferation and undeniable influence of major online platforms, the DSA specifically tailors its requirements to these digital behemoths. Platforms that boast significant user engagement, specifically those with more than 45 million regional monthly active users, fall under the ambit of enhanced regulatory scrutiny. This delineation underscores the substantial impact these platforms can have on public discourse and societal norms. The Act compels these platforms to not only improve their content moderation processes but also to develop and implement robust risk management systems. These systems are designed to identify, assess, and mitigate the risks associated with illegal content, disinformation, and online harms, particularly those that may affect vulnerable groups such as minors.

Furthermore, the DSA enforces a paradigm shift toward algorithmic transparency, demanding that platforms disclose the workings of their content recommendation systems. This aspect of the legislation aims to demystify the often opaque algorithms determining what content reaches users, thus empowering users with the choice to opt-out of algorithmic suggestions. Additionally, it requires platforms to afford external researchers access to data on systemic risks, facilitating independent scrutiny and contributing to the broader understanding of online platforms’ societal impacts. Through its stringent stipulations, the DSA not only seeks to safeguard users from digital harm but also endeavors to foster a more accountable and transparent online ecosystem for all stakeholders involved.

The Genesis of Concerns Leading to the Probe

The genesis of concerns that led to the European Union's formal investigation into TikTok revolves around pressing issues of child safety, opaque advertising practices, and questionable content management strategies that potentially compromise user privacy and security, especially among minors. Central to these apprehensions is TikTok's alleged inadequacy in instituting robust age verification mechanisms. The platform has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent underage users from accessing content that may not be suitable for their age group, raising significant doubts over the effectiveness and reliability of TikTok's measures to safeguard young digital citizens from exposure to harmful content.

Moreover, the alleged "rabbit hole" effect — where users are led down a path of increasingly consuming content that may be harmful due to TikTok's algorithmic recommendations — further amplifies the distress. Such a design, purportedly aimed at maximizing user engagement, is under scrutiny for its potential to foster behavioral addiction among users, raising ethical and safety concerns, particularly concerning the mental and emotional well-being of impressionable audiences. This effect underscores systemic risks associated with TikTok's content distribution mechanisms, which the EU aims to evaluate for compliance with standards meant to protect the rights and safety of the child.

In addition to concerns surrounding child safety and content governance, the European Commission is also investigating TikTok’s transparency in advertising and its data access provisions for researchers. The probe questions whether TikTok's practices in these areas are reasonable, proportionate, and effective, as claimed by the platform. This inquiry aims to shed light on TikTok’s commitment to ensuring that advertisements are clearly identifiable as such, avoiding any deception that could mislead users. Furthermore, the investigation scrutinizes TikTok's cooperation with external researchers seeking to study the platform's impact on societal and individual well-being, essentially probing TikTok's readiness to be transparent and accountable in its operations as mandated by the European Union's standards.

TikTok Under the Microscope: Examination and Evidence Gathering

The European Commission's rigorous investigation into TikTok's adherence to the Digital Services Act (DSA) is marked by an intricate process of examination and evidence gathering. Central to this procedure is the commission's extensive request for data from TikTok, aimed at scrutinizing the platform's operational frameworks in light of DSA mandates. Specifically, the Commission is delving into areas such as TikTok's age verification tools, the effectiveness of its advertisement transparency policies, and its adherence to protocols regarding the accessibility of data for researchers. This deep dive into TikTok's practices underscores the thoroughness with which the European Commission intends to assess compliance, leveraging data requisition as a foundational step in establishing a factual baseline for subsequent analysis.

In addition to soliciting comprehensive datasets, the European Commission's methodology encompasses conducting detailed interviews and potentially initiating on-site inspections. These steps are designed to complement the documentary evidence provided by TikTok, offering a multidimensional view of the platform's operations and its alignment with DSA requirements. Through interviews, the Commission aims to gather nuanced insights into TikTok's implementation strategies for its stated policies and mechanisms for safeguarding against systemic risks. Meanwhile, on-site inspections could serve as a direct means of verifying the physical and technical infrastructures in place to support TikTok's compliance efforts, providing an unmediated lens through which the Commission can evaluate the platform's adherence to the DSA.

This layered approach—combining data collection, interviews, and potentially on-site inspections—underpins the evidentiary process that is critical to the European Commission's investigative framework. By deploying these varied tools, the Commission ensures a comprehensive and nuanced assessment of TikTok's compliance with the DSA, facilitating a thorough understanding of the platform's operational reality in the context of the regulatory standards set forth by the EU. The absence of a formal deadline for concluding the investigation further underscores the Commission's commitment to a meticulous and unhurried examination, prioritizing the accuracy and integrity of its findings over expedience.

Potential Outcomes and Ramifications for TikTok

TikTok faces a broad spectrum of potential penalties following the European Union's formal probe, which could significantly impact its operations within the bloc. Financial consequences are perhaps the most immediate concern, with the Digital Services Act allowing for fines of up to 6% of TikTok's global annual turnover. Given TikTok's vast revenue and valuation, such penalties could amount to a substantial financial hit. Beyond monetary fines, the investigation may compel TikTok to undertake extensive, potentially costly modifications to its platform to ensure compliance with the EU’s stringent requirements on child safety, content governance, algorithmic transparency, and risk management.

Operational restrictions present another possible outcome, with the EU possessing the authority to enforce changes or limitations on TikTok’s practices within its member states. This could range from requiring adjustments to TikTok's algorithm to mitigate the "rabbit hole" effect, implementing more robust age verification tools, or enhancing transparency around advertising and data practices. Such operational mandates would not only necessitate significant internal restructuring but could also alter the user experience, potentially affecting the platform's popularity and engagement rates. In extreme cases, repeated or serious violations might lead the EU to restrict TikTok's operations within the bloc, a move that would have profound implications for the company's market presence in Europe.

The probe's ramifications extend beyond TikTok, setting a precedent for the regulatory enforcement of digital platforms operating within the European Union under the Digital Services Act. This investigation underscores the EU's commitment to holding tech giants accountable for adhering to its regulations, emphasizing the importance of user safety, transparency, and responsible content management. The outcome of this investigation could signal to other platforms the EU's readiness to use its regulatory powers, possibly leading to a wider industry shift towards more rigorous compliance with these digital safety and governance standards.


The European Union has launched a formal investigation into TikTok under the Digital Services Act, citing concerns relating to child safety, risk management, and other issues. The investigation aims to evaluate TikTok's compliance with the Act's regulations, including measures for age verification, content moderation, algorithmic transparency, and advertising transparency. If found in violation, TikTok could face significant financial penalties and operational restrictions, potentially impacting its operations within the EU. This probe sets a precedent for the enforcement of digital platform regulations and highlights the EU's commitment to ensuring user safety and responsible content management in the online sphere.

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