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‘Surprised and disappointed’: inside the row over Parliament’s new TikTok account

MPs warn that social media company could harvest user data

Where’s the best spot in London to get a selfie with Big Ben? That’s the subject of the one – and only – video on the government’s new TikTok page for Parliament.

It’s usually the content of a social media post that sparks discussion, but @UKParliament’s very existence as a social media platform, which so far has just 123 followers, is stirring up controversy in Westminster. 

Senior Conservative MPs and members of the House of Lords who have previously been sanctioned by China have “laid into parliamentary authorities” for setting up the account, which is owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance, said Politico

Tom Tugendhat, Iain Duncan Smith and Nusrat Ghani are among the politicians calling for the account to be closed down “over fears that TikTok user data is transferred to China”, the news site reported. 

In a joint letter that was sent to speakers of the House of Commons and House of Lords on Wednesday, and was seen by Politico’s London Playbook, the group said they were “surprised and disappointed” that the TikTok account had been created. “The prospect of Xi Jinping’s government having access to personal data on our children’s phones ought to be a cause for major concern,” the letter read. It called for the account to be taken down “until credible assurances can be given that no data whatsoever can be transferred to China”. 

The group referred to the 2017 National Intelligence Law, which requires companies to provide government authorities with data when requested to do so. “They expressed doubt over a TikTok executive's reassurances to Parliament in 2021 that its user data is not shared with ByteDance in China.”  

Tugendhat, Duncan Smith and Ghani were sanctioned last year after the Chinese government claimed they had “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” about human rights abuses. 

“The sanctions didn’t come as a surprise” to Tugendhat, said Foreign Policy. The “British MP China hates most” has been the chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee since 2017 and has “done his best to harden British policy towards the Chinese state”, said the magazine.

Duncan Smith said that he saw the sanctions – which prevent the individuals and their immediate families from entering Chinese territory, and from doing businesses with Chinese institutions or citizens – as a “badge of honour”.

Last week, cybersecurity experts Internet 2.0 warned Australian TikTok users that the social media company collects “excessive” amounts of personal data, and that the app could be used by the Chinese government to “harvest personal information, from in-app messages with friends to precise device locations”, The Guardian reported.

It remains to be seen whether @UKParliament’s followers will see more of the “news and bts content from Big Ben’s conservation” that the account’s bio had promised.

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