Social networks grow up faster these days. It took Facebook eight years to reach 1 billion users but TikTok got there in just five. The fast-growing short-video app got squeezed by political and regulatory concerns at a younger age, too, over its Chinese ownership and influence on teen mental health.
The pressure on TikTok is now set to jump higher still. The European Union’s recently agreed Digital Services Act (DSA) places new restrictions on the largest platforms, a reaction to how established platforms like Facebook and YouTube have been used to undermine elections, promote genocide, and spread dangerous conspiracy theories. But the new rules are likely to bring about bigger changes on TikTok than on more established platforms.
To date, TikTok has been less transparent and well-studied than Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. That’s partly because it is a much younger service and fewer researchers and journalists have scrutinized its workings. But TikTok has also not provided tools to enable researchers to study how content circulates on its platform as Facebook and Twitter have done. When Europe’s new rules force all large social platforms to open up their data and even algorithms to outside scrutiny, our understanding of TikTok may change most of all.
The DSA is aimed at reducing online harms such as harassment and making major online platforms more accountable for their effects on elections and other aspects of society, with large social networks and search engines the primary targets. The law was agreed late last month, weeks after the passage of a companion law aimed at tech monopoly power. “With today’s agreement we ensure that platforms are held accountable for the risks their services can pose to society and citizens,” European Commission executive vice president Margarethe Vestager said when the DSA was agreed. The law’s legal text is now being finalized and the DSA could take effect as soon as January 2024. As with Europe’s data protection law, GDPR, the DSA may alter how tech companies around the world operate.
Earlier drafts of the DSA and details confirmed after negotiations concluded make clear the law will force major changes in how social networks operate. The toughest measures are reserved for platforms with more than 45 million active users in the EU. TikTok said in 2020 that it had more than 100 million users in Europe.
TikTok declined to answer questions about what changes it might have to make to comply with the DSA. Spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said that TikTok welcomed the DSA’s “focus on transparency as a means to show accountability” and that the company was “intent” on furthering its work “to build trust through transparency” with its users.
To date, experts say that necessary transparency has been lacking. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted both TikTok’s power and its inscrutability. Soon after the war began in February, TikTok became central to the spread of video from and rumors about the war. But researchers at nonprofits and in academia cannot easily monitor how such content is spreading, because the company doesn’t offer researchers APIs to enable study of its platform as Facebook and Twitter do. Social media research collective Tracking Exposed had to use software that surfs and scapes TikTok to uncover how the company quietly constrained the content available to users in Russia.
The requirements the DSA lays on large platforms could provide a much more complete picture in future emergencies that play out online. A “crisis mechanism” in the law allows the European Commission to order the largest platforms to restrict certain content in response to a security or health emergency. The DSA also requires big platforms to provide “vetted” external researchers with access to data needed to study online risks at all times. “Data access is a game changer,” says Alex Engler, a fellow at think tank the Brookings Institution, who studies the social impact of algorithms. “It will allow systematic evaluation of the actual outcomes and effects of these platforms and can change the societal insight we can have into these public squares.”