China bets on Italy (again) for Southern European TikTok office

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The popular Chinese video sharing app is strengthening its European presence with a new office in Milan, while also looking to forge closer ties with the fashion industry. However, EU authorities are probing the company over user data privacy concerns.

The TikTok craze is still taking European youths by storm, as the wildly popular short video sharing app has recently surpassed 100 million active users in the Old Continent.

ByteDance, the Chinese company behind TikTok and the world’s most valuable startup, is seeking to widen its European operations. Last week it announced the opening of a new division with offices in Milan, Italy, to establish its presence in the Southern European market.

The newco TikTok Italy, wholly controlled by TikTok’s global operation in London, will oversee operations in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Italy alone counts 9.8 million users, and Spain records 8.8. But this newco is only a cog in a wider European strategic mechanism.

Aside for the UK (near 10 million) the app is popular in France (11) and Germany (10.8), and both countries have their own TikTok division. One office in Poland oversees Central and Eastern Europe, another in Stockholm sees to the North, and the legal office is in Dublin, as most of the main American social networks in Europe do (yes, it’s tax breaks).

Milan was not chosen by chance; it’s ideally positioned, and it’s regarded as a global capital of fashion. This has whetted TikTok’s appetite for symbiotic business enterprises with major luxury fashion brands, who in turn are only too happy to jump aboard and engage the young through their preferred channels.

“Gucci, Prada, Dior, Luxottica, Balenciaga are only some of the many brands already active on the platform,” said Adriano Accardo, managing director for TikTok’s global business solutions in Southern Europe; “our objective for the future is to involve more companies from the fashion industry.”

Thanks to the pandemic, some major fashion brands have begun premiering their new collections on TikTok. They also engage with local TikTok influencers to promote their products, and the social media has even planned an online-only fashion month. Branded AR filters, effects, hashtag challenges and promotions are used to increase brand awareness among users.

The news appeared on Class Editori (partnered with Chinese news services) and Xinhua Silk Road Information Service, the aptly named outlet pushing content about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the sprawling multibillion commercial highway promoted by Beijing.

However, when it comes to Chinese tech companies and their data policies, the matter is always thorny. The extended war on TikTok waged by the US administration, led by President Donald Trump, is purportedly fought over the app’s handling of citizens’ data and fear of espionage.

Beijing rejects the US’ accusations and guarantees the privacy of TikTok’s user data. Nonetheless, the American warnings have led Italy’s parliamentary security commission (COPASIR) and Privacy Guarantor to examine the app.

Last December, COPASIR’s president Raffaele Volpi warned of the “disturbing” nature of the user’s data profiling practices and declared that the app has been invented by the Chinese government to profile their youngsters.

The Privacy Guarantor Antonello Soro took the matter of data protection to the European Commission, which pledged in June to create a task force to probe TikTok’s compliance with the GDPR (the EU’s data protection laws, among the strictest in the world).

The task force’s findings may decide whether TikTok’s plan to invest €500 million in its first European data centre in Dublin is indeed a viable option.

This is only one instalment in the data protection saga underway in Italy (and many other Western countries) with regards to Chinese tech. Most of it hinges on crucial aspects of Chinese law granting Beijing the power to gather sensible data from any Chinese company, which in turn – given the spread of Chinese tech around the world – poses the danger of foreign espionage.

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