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Caveat: Ireland needs to be careful it doesn’t end up dancing to TikTok’s tune

The Chinese-controlled social media giant potentially could be even more troublesome for the State than its US Silicon Valley peers

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who is also Minister for Business, will lead a trade mission next week to the west coast of the US. During the trip he will visit Google's campus in California.

Irish political leaders dearly covet photo opportunities with Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple, which between them employ close to 20,000 here and pay vast sums in corporation tax.

Occasionally the love-ins can go too far. Enda Kenny was considered so close to Facebook that the former Taoiseach was labelled a "friend" of the combative company in an internal corporate memo.

It surfaced at a time when Facebook was under pressure from other European governments over a variety of issues.

Kenny's successor as Taoiseach, Varadkar, has met Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, many times to discuss sensitive topics and he has also exchanged numerous pally letters with him.

Varadkar’s successor in the top job, Micheál Martin, was the enterprise minister who nearly 15 years ago helped to negotiate Facebook’s move to Ireland to set up its European base.

Meanwhile, Irish politicians of all hues have regularly swooned over Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, and his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs, who brought thousands of jobs to Cork.

Returns to the State’s lobbying register show that all of the Big Three Silicon Valley giants have virtually open access to Irish corridors of power, where their concerns over everything from data laws to the Irish tax regime and even our health and education systems will be closely listened to.

Polite distance

In this context, it is noticeable that most of our leaders have kept a polite distance in recent years from the company that is now easily the fastest-growing private sector employer in the State, Chinese social media video giant, TikTok.

In less than four years it has gone from 20 Irish staff to about 2,000. With recent expansion announcements, it is well on its way to employing close to 3,000 staff in Ireland. With the office deals it is pursuing in Dublin’s docklands, soon it may have capacity for up to 5,000.

TikTok’s European headquarters is located in Dublin, just across the street from Facebook. It also runs all of its European privacy and online safety operations from the capital. It plans to build a €600 million data centre here.

TikTok is also among the most-used social media networks among Irish teenagers and young adults, with more than 2.2 million active Irish accounts.

You would expect politicians from every political party to be all over the company like a rash, chasing its executives down the street for photo opportunities, or throwing funny shapes in TikTok videos to win relevance with future voters.

Yet, apart from separate low-key visits to its Dublin base 18 months ago by Martin and Varadkar (and a slightly awkward TikTok video debut by the Tánaiste), the State’s ruling class has largely left TikTok to its own devices in Dublin.

Even the State investment agency IDA Ireland, which normally isn’t shy about trumpeting its clients’ exploits, has said remarkably little about TikTok’s Irish arm apart from a handful of dry press releases.

Perhaps the politicians have learned from past mistakes. Ireland is viewed in some corners of Europe as a vassal state of the big US tech giants that have pumped tens of billions of euro of investment into the economy here.

The trouble started with Google, which perfected the infamous Double Irish tax avoidance trick that gained this State an international reputation as a fiscal Wild West. Soon, the European Commission was chasing Apple for more than €13 billion in taxes it says it owed via an alleged sweetheart deal with Ireland.

The commission’s case eventually was shot down in the courts. But the damage was done to Ireland’s reputation, as the nation was denounced as a tax haven by key US political leaders.

Then Facebook became entwined in repeated sagas of global mither over data and privacy issues and the use of its platform as a weapon of political interference. Suddenly, Ireland’s friendship with Zuckerberg & Co didn’t look so smart on the geopolitical stage.

Reputational risks

Now, imagine if some or all of these issues, such as concerns over data, eventually are replicated with TikTok, which is alleged to have inextricable links with the Chinese Communist Party and the regime in the world’s most authoritarian superpower.

The reputational risks for Ireland of hosting Google, Facebook and Apple pale into insignificance compared to the blowback that could arrive if a major data or privacy scandal ever blew up around TikTok or its deeply private Chinese parent company, ByteDance.

For several years, the company has rejected accusations in the US and elsewhere that it is under the influence of the Chinese government which, it has been alleged, could gain access to the data it collects on users.

TikTok says it does not collect any sensitive biometric data such as its users face maps. But its mirror ByteDance company inside China, where the platform is known as Douyin, clearly does collect such data because users of the almost identical service in China can search by a contributor’s facial features.

The Chinese state has a so-called “golden share” arrangement with a key ByteDance subsidiary in China, which allows it to appoint directors and influence or potentially even veto key company decisions.

This has caused deep unease in capitals across Europe and also in the US, where TikTok executives were grilled on the issue by US politicians last October.

In Dublin, the Data Protection Commission has already opened two investigations against TikTok. One concerns the platform’s processing of data held on underage users. The other investigation deals with “transfers by TikTok of personal data to China” and whether it is in compliance with European data rules.

Whatever fears Irish and other European citizens may have about their personal data being transferred to the US tech behemoths in California, transmitting data to China, under Xi Jinping’s repressive regime, brings a whole new level of potential risk.

Throw in TikTok’s new European data centre in Ireland, and a whole new range of issues could emerge for this State.

The company has hired former Oireachtas and Irish Water official, Susan Moss, who previously worked as an adviser to Kenny and also to Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald, as its top lobbyist in Dublin.

TikTok clearly understands that it needs to forge close ties with Irish political leaders. Just how much the State’s leaders should maintain close ties with this influential Chinese company may be a matter of good judgement.