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TikTok faces class action lawsuit in US

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ByteDance, parent company of social media platform TikTok, has been sued for allegedly violating US child privacy laws by collecting the personal data of underage users through the acquisition of another app.

TikTok, which allows users to share and view short videos, has exploded in popularity among young people in the past year, having reached more than one billion downloads. It has been credited with rapidly creating memes and celebrities, including rapper Lil Nas X. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, which created the app out of acquired start-up Musical.ly and Chinese app Douyin in 2017.

Despite its popularity, TikTok and its parent company have come under severe criticism for its censorship of issues unfavourable to the Communist Party of China, including videos critical of China and videos referencing (or even acknowledging) LGBT+ issues.

Now, ByteDance is facing a lawsuit alleging that it illegally acquired data collected from children under the age of 13 via its acquisition of TikTok predecessor Musical.ly.

Under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the US has some of the strongest regulations protecting children from data collection, including rules forbidding developers from collecting personal data from children without parental consent.

The class action lawsuit has been brought by two minors living in Chicago, via their mothers.

“This case alleges that [ByteDance], in a quest to generate profits surreptitiously tracked, collected, and disclosed the personally identifiable information and/or viewing data of children under the age of 13 without parental consent while they were using [the app],” the lawsuit said. It stated that these practices have had serious impacts in the past, including children being stalked by adults.

The complaint alleges that ByteDance has collected children’s personal data without parental consent since at least 2014, and sold the data to third-parties for advertising purposes.

TikTok has stated that it disagrees with “much of what is alleged” in the complaint, and is working with the parties involved to reach a resolution.

TikTok has previously found itself in hot water over its collection of personal data from children; in February, the company reached a $5.7m settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it illegally collected data from children.

This week, TikTok also admitted to having shadowbanned groups of users – subtly supressing their reach on the platform, such as by preventing their videos appearing on other users’ feeds – who had disabilities, were overweight, or identified with the LGBT+ community. According to TikTok, these people were flagged up if they were “vulnerable to cyberbullying”, such as having facial disfigurements, autism, Down syndrome, facial birthmarks, “slight squint”, identifying with the LGBT+ community, or using the hashtag #fatwoman as an identifier. Last week, TikTok was forced to apologise after blocking a user who posted a short video raising awareness of the forced ‘re-education’ of the Uighur Muslim minority in China.

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