Tiktok: European Security Advisory Council to protect minors – digitally


The new year could have started better for Tiktok. At the end of January, a ten-year-old who had taken part in a “Blackout Challenge” died in Italy. She strangled herself and later wanted to upload the video to Tiktok in order to impress other users. A few weeks later, the European consumer association Beuc complained to the EU Commission about Tiktok. “Children love TikTok, but the company fails to protect them,” says General Manager Monique Goyens.

In order to prevent such escalations in the future, Tiktok wants to get help in Europe. Nine experts from science and civil society are to advise the platform on how it can become a safe place for minors. “We will regularly ask the members of the Security Advisory Council: What can we do differently, where do we need to improve?” Says Julie de Bailliencourt, who heads Tiktoks Policy Department in Europe and helped initiate the Advisory Board.

Judy Korn, managing director of the German organization Violence Prevention Network, belongs to the committee. It is not enough to simply delete extremist content or block accounts, she says. “We have to go beyond that and combine the expertise of different professional groups. I am delighted that TikTok is taking this path and that I can support the team in this.”

The other members come from countries such as Great Britain, France, Finland and the Netherlands. You work for NGOs, do research on sexualised violence online, and are committed to combating bullying and discrimination. Tiktok determined the composition; there was no independent selection process. The members stay in their jobs and are financially compensated for the effort.

Many children give their ages incorrectly

Similar advisory boards already exist in Asia and the US, but each region has different needs, says Bailliencourt. After all, the challenges often depend on the culture and context. The new body should take the European perspective into account. Last September, Tiktok’s Chinese owner Bytedance announced that more than 100 million people in Europe are using the app regularly. If Tiktok is successful, the number should be higher today.

The platform is particularly popular with teenagers who officially have to be at least 13 years old. In fact, however, many children register who give their date of birth incorrectly. The death of the ten-year-old Italian shows how dangerous that can be. “We also expect algorithms to be used to check the age of the children,” said the head of the Italian data protection authority after the accident.

Tiktok hopes for future support from the Security Advisory Board for such problems. It should be critical and controversial, assures Bailliencourt. “We urge members not to hold back. It’s about discussing difficult topics as openly as possible.” The most pressing challenges include dealing with videos about eating disorders and the question of how Tiktok can help adolescents feel comfortable in their bodies.

Tiktok discriminated fat and LGBTQ

On the one hand, Tiktok supports campaigns and hashtags that are supposed to strengthen body positivity and self-esteem in normal teenagers. On the other hand, research covered Network policy and The Intercept on that Tiktok discriminated against fat, queer and disabled people for a long time. When Tiktok’s automatic filters detected supposedly “ugly faces” or “abnormal body shapes”, the algorithm throttled the range of the videos.

“There have been mistakes in the past,” said Tobias Henning, Tiktok’s managing director in Germany, in a recent interview with Time online. Measures have been taken. However, revealed Guardian and Buzzfeed in December and February that Tiktok still has a lot of work to do. In some cases, the platform’s algorithms recommend content on the central “For You” page that propagates dangerous diets and could drive people into anorexia.

“Absolutely” no influence from China

One of the measures Henning mentioned to prevent such errors is the security center in Dublin, where Bailliencourt also works. “We want Tiktok to be a place where people can be creative and be entertained”; she says. “The fight against bullying and radicalization challenges all platforms, so we need as much external expertise as possible.”

If the company and the Security Advisory Board disagree, Tiktok has the final say. In contrast to Facebook’s “Oversight Board”, the committee cannot make binding decisions. It is an advisory body, not a court, says Bailliencourt.

At least one thing she can rule out, however, Tiktok’s European policy chief assures: The Chinese owner Bytedance does not have any influence on her work. “Not at all. I am employed in Dublin. I am responsible for our entire content policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I am working on a product that is not available in China.”

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