TikTok is being investigated by France’s data watchdog

More worries for TikTok: A European data watchdog that’s landed the biggest blow on a tech giant to date — slapping Google with a $57M fine last year (upheld in June) — now has an open investigation into the social video app du jour, TechCrunch has confirmed.

A spokeswoman for France’s CNIL told us it opened an investigation into how the app handles user data in May 2020, following a complaint related to a request to delete a video. Its probe of the video sharing platform was reported earlier by Politico.

Under the European Union’s data protection framework, citizens who have given consent for their data to be processed continue to hold a range of rights attached to their personal data, including the ability to request a copy or deletion of the information, or ask for their data in a portable form.

Additional requirements under the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) include transparency obligations to ensure accountability with the framework. Which means data controllers must provide data subjects with clear information on the purposes of processing — including in order to obtain legally valid consent to process the data.

The CNIL’s spokeswoman told us its complaint-triggered investigation into TikTok has since widened to include issues related to transparency requirements about how it processes user data; users’ data access rights; transfers of user data outside the EU; and steps the platform takes to ensure the data of minors is adequately protected — a key issue, given the app’s popularity with teens.

French data protection law lets children consent to the processing of their data for information social services such as TikTok at aged 15 (or younger with parental consent).

As regards the original complaint, the CNIL’s spokeswoman said the person in question has since been “invited to exercise his rights with TikTok under the GDPR, which he had not taken beforehand” (via Google Translate).

We’ve reached out to TikTok for comment on the CNIL investigation. Update: A TikTok spokesperson said: “TikTok’s top priority is protecting our users’ privacy and safety. We are aware of CNIL’s investigation and are fully cooperating with them.”

One question mark is it’s not clear whether the French watchdog will be able to see its investigation of TikTok to full conclusion.

In further emailed remarks its spokeswoman noted the company is seeking to designate Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) as its lead authority in Europe — and is setting up an establishment in Ireland for that purpose. (Related: Last week TikTok announced a plan to open its first data center in Europe, which will eventually hold all EU users’ data, also in Ireland.)

If TikTok is able to satisfy the legal conditions it may be able to move any GDPR investigation to the DPC — which has gained a reputation for being painstakingly slow to enforce complex cross-border GDPR cases. Though in late May it finally submitted a first draft decision (on a Twitter case) to the other EU data watchdogs for review. A final decision in that case is still pending.

“The [TikTok] investigations could therefore ultimately be the sole responsibility of the Irish protection authority, which will have to deal with the case in cooperation with the other European data protection authorities,” the CNIL’s spokeswoman noted, before emphasizing there is a standard of proof it will have to meet.

“To come under the sole jurisdiction of the Irish authority and not of each of the authorities, Tiktok will nevertheless have to prove that its establishment in Ireland fulfils the conditions of a ‘principal establishment’ within the meaning of the GDPR.”

Under Europe’s GDPR framework, national data watchdogs have powers to issue penalties of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover and can also order infringing data processing to cease. But to do any of that they have to first investigate and go through the process of issuing a decision. In cross-border cases where multiple watchdogs have an interest, there’s also a requirement to liaise with other regulators to ensure there’s broad consensus on any decision.

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