UK Data Watchdog Says TikTok Could Face £27 Million Fine

Child holding a smartphone with TikTok logo on the screen

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said on Monday that TikTok could face a £27 million fine for potentially failing to protect children’s privacy on its platform.

As the UK’s data privacy regulator, the ICO is tasked with ensuring companies and individuals comply with the country’s data protection laws. As part of this duty, the ICO investigates public complaints of personal data infringement. Though the investigative process is confidential, the ICO records and investigates every complaint and data breach record.

TikTok will have 30 days to respond to the findings. The ICO also said that its notice does not mean TikTok has conclusively violated UK’s laws, however, if found guilty, the social media giant could be fined up to 4% of its annual global turnover.

“The Commissioner’s findings in the notice are provisional,” the ICO’s official statement reads. “No conclusion should be drawn at this stage that there has, in fact, been any breach of data protection law or that a financial penalty will ultimately be imposed. We will carefully consider any representations from TikTok before taking a final decision.”

ICO’s Provisional Findings

In its investigation into TikTok’s privacy practices, the regulator said it found that certain policies, between May 2018 and July 2020, may be in violation of UK law. Consequently, it issued a “notice of intent” to TikTok — a legal document that signals the ICO’s intent to levy a fine.

The ICO’s provisional findings are listed below:

  1. TikTok may have processed children’s data (under 13 years) without requisite parental consent.
  2. TikTok may have “failed to provide proper information to its users in a concise, transparent and easily understood way.” This most likely refers to its data collection practices.
  3. The company may have processed special category data (which includes ethnic and racial origin, political opinions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, Trade union membership, genetic and biometric data or health data) without the appropriate legal grounds to do so.

“We all want children to be able to learn and experience the digital world, but with proper data privacy protections,” UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said.

“Companies providing digital services have a legal duty to put those protections in place, but our provisional view is that TikTok fell short of meeting that requirement,” Edwards added.

TikTok Disagrees With ICO, Prepares Formal Response

TikTok has publicly disagreed with the ICO’s provisional fine and is planning to issue a formal response to the regulator.

“While we respect the ICO’s role in safeguarding privacy in the UK, we disagree with the preliminary views expressed and intend to formally respond to the ICO in due course,” a TikTok spokesperson told CNBC.

In recent years, TikTok’s privacy practices, especially concerning children, have been under heavy scrutiny all over the globe. Last year the Irish Data Protection Authority launched two investigations into its data protection practices and whether it complies with the GDPR.

In October 2021, a U.S. Senate subcommittee called TikTok’s vice president and head of public policy, Michael Beckerman, to provide testimony on the platform’s impact on young children. The company also faced a lawsuit in the UK for allowing children younger than 13 to join and use the platform. This issue was also brought up in the ICO’s findings.

The ICO’s investigation and provisional decision show that the heat is still very much on TikTok.

If you found this story interesting and want to know more about safety and privacy for kids online, we recommend checking out our ultimate TikTok child safety guide.

Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.