TikTok is being sued in the UK for the way the popular video-sharing app collects and uses children’s personal data. The lawsuit alleges that the social network, a subsidiary of the Chinese internet technology company ByteDance, is not clear about what data it collects and whether they always obtain parental consent. According to TikTok, the accusation lacks merit and they will challenge it.
“Behind TikTok Lies Something Sinister”
Former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield filed the case on behalf of millions of children from the UK and Europe who use TikTok. According to the children’s campaigner and several lawyers, the social network collects a variety of children’s personal information. This includes their name, phone number, geographic location, biometric data and videos.
The accusers state that the company is not open and honest about what data they collect. Nor do they obtain parental consent, which is required by law. Finally, it is unclear what exactly TikTok does with all the collected data.
According to Longfield, TikTok needs to be held accountable for its excessive data collection policy. “TikTok is a hugely popular social media platform that has helped children keep in touch with their friends during an incredibly difficult year. However, behind the fun songs, dance challenges and lip-sync trends lies something far more sinister”, said the former children’s commissioner.
“Social Media Giant Deliberately Lies to Parents”
Longfield told BBC News that TikTok is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network” which “deliberately and successfully deceived parents”. Longfield believes that parents have the right to know what data is collected. And, consequently, to know what’s happening with their children’s data.
The law firm leading the lawsuit, Scott+Scott, added that TikTok breaches the UK’s and EU’s data protection laws. Partner Tom Southwell explained: “TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children. Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral duty to protect children online, is unacceptable.”
TikTok requires users to be at least 13 years old to use the app. Yet, despite TikTok’s policy to forbid under -13s on the video-sharing platform, 44% of 8 to 12-year-olds in the UK use TikTok. In the US, around 30% of users are between 13 and 18, but it’s relatively easy for younger users to set up an account and lie about their age. TikTok does not recommend the app to be used by kids under the age of 16, because of the explicit content available on the platform.
TikTok: “Allegations Are Without Merit”
The social media giant claims the allegations are entirely without merit. The company emphasized that “privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok”. They claim to have robust policies, processes and technologies in place. They are meant to help protect all users, and “teenage users in particular”. Therefore, the social media giant intends to vigorously defend itself and plans to prove the accusers wrong.
It is not the first time that TikTok is being sued for using children’s personal data. At the beginning of last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined the video-sharing platform $5.7 million for illegally collecting data from minors. This was the largest civil penalty obtained by the FTC in a children’s privacy case. The Chinese social network also had to delete videos of children under the age of 13.
In line with the settlement, TikTok promised to take action. However, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) did not take the social media platform at its word. In May 2020, the CDD asked the FTC to, again, put TikTok under a microscope. Their complaint, which was supported by a coalition of 20 leading advocacy groups, detailed TikTok’s ongoing violations of children’s privacy.
Privacy Violations Ongoing
A month later, in March, TikTok agreed to pay $92 million to settle more than 20 privacy violation cases. Chinese parent company ByteDance processed the data of some 89 million users in the US alone. According to the prosecutors’ attorneys, some of the children on TikTok are only six years old. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires companies to obtain parental consent for under 13’s. Furthermore, the app is not allowed to collect biometric and location data from US users.
Not only in the US and the UK are politicians, citizens and human rights organizations concerned. In February, the European Consumers Association BEUC filed a complaint with the European Commission and the network of consumer protection authorities against TikTok. In addition to BEUC’s complaint, consumer organizations in 17 EU member states alerted authorities. They urged authorities to investigate the social media giant’s conduct.