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TikTok continues to violate child privacy laws, complaint alleges

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A coalition of 20 advocacy groups has accused TikTok of violating US child privacy laws and breaching a settlement agreed in February 2019 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, allows users to share and view short videos. It has exploded in popularity among young people, having reached more than two billion downloads. TikTok videos frequently feature children dancing, lip-syncing, and reacting to other videos.

In February 2019, TikTok reached a $5.7m settlement with the FTC over collection of personal data from children under the age of 13 without their parental consent, violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

As part of the settlement, TikTok agreed to comply with COPPA in future and take down any videos uploaded by users under the age of 13. TikTok subsequently launched a separate part of its app for younger children (“TikTok for Younger Users”) which it claims introduces additional safety and privacy protections.

Now, a coalition of advocacy groups led by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy has filed a complaint, alleging that TikTok failed to adhere to COPPA and the terms of the FTC settlement, saying: “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”.

The “TikTok for Younger Users” section of the app fails to adhere to COPPA because TikTok still collects data from children which is shared with third parties for advertising purposes, the groups say.

The complaint alleges that TikTok has failed to delete children’s personal data, fails to prevent children using the main app by lying about their age, and lacks adequate mechanisms for receiving parental consent for data collection or for allowing parents to delete data. It also alleges that TikTok has failed to remove children’s accounts on the main app, some of which have millions of followers; TikTok had agreed to remove all videos made by children under the age of 13 as part of last year’s FTC settlement.

“Even after being caught red-handed by the FTC, TikTok continues to flout the law,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

TikTok 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.”

Meanwhile, the Dutch data protection agency has announced an investigation into similar issues; the Dutch data protection watchdog will look into whether TikTok provides adequate protections for the privacy of children.

In spite of its popularity, TikTok has come under a stream of criticism for various issues, including its censorship of videos unfavourable to the Communist Party of China, and allegations that it has transferred personally-identifiable data from Americans to servers located in China.

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