TikTok accused of breaching US child privacy regulations

Twenty advocacy groups have accused TikTok of violating child privacy regulations in the US and breaching a settlement that the viral video app agreed with the Federal Trade Commission last year over a previous privacy complaint. 

The groups — which include the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Privacy Information Center — have filed a complaint with the US watchdog saying they believe that the social media platform is “in contempt” of the terms of the 2019 settlement, as well as children’s privacy regulations.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech group ByteDance, was fined $5.7m in February last year for illegally collecting children’s data, as it began to rise in popularity among teens in the west. 

But according to the advocacy groups’ complaint, “more than a year later, with quarantined kids and families flocking to the site in record numbers, TikTok has failed to delete personal information previously collected from children and is still collecting kids’ personal information without notice to and consent of parents”. 

TikTok said it had not yet seen the latest complaint. It said in a statement: “We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users.”

Last month, TikTok topped 2bn downloads, according to data from Sensor Tower, after it was installed more than 315m times via the App Store and Google Play in the first quarter of the year alone, a quarterly record for any app to date.

Calling for an investigation into the matter and sanctions on TikTok, the consumer and child privacy groups said the company had failed to delete personal information collected from users aged 13 and under prior to the 2019 settlement order, in breach of the terms of the agreement.

They also argued that TikTok does not have an adequate mechanism for receiving parental consent for the collection of certain data belonging to children on the platform, or for allowing parents to delete that personal information, in violation of the consent decree and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa). 

“We easily found that many accounts featuring children were still present on TikTok. Many of these accounts have tens of thousands to millions of followers, and have been around since before the order,” said Michael Rosenbloom, staff attorney at the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law, which is representing the advocates. 

“We urge the FTC to hold TikTok to account for continuing to violate both Coppa and its consent decree.”

The news comes just hours after the Dutch data protection agency announced an investigation into whether TikTok “adequately protects” the privacy of Dutch children and “adequately explains how their personal data is collected, processed and used”. 

TikTok said it was “fully co-operating” with the Dutch watchdog regarding its privacy investigation. 

There are mounting concerns from critics over children’s online privacy, particularly at big internet companies that collect reams of user data for targeted advertising. Last year, Google paid $170m in a settlement with the FTC to resolve allegations that it breached Coppa by illegally gathering certain data on child users of YouTube for ad purposes. 

Separately last year, the FTC reached a $5bn settlement with Facebook after finding it had violated an earlier consent order related to user privacy. 

The FTC declined to comment. 

Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington

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