On December 4, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance was sued for violating children’s privacy and data protection laws because it collected young users’ data. A day later, ByteDance settled the suit. The Plaintiffs are represented by Kozonis & Klinger and the suit was filed in the Illinois Northern District Court. The suit reached an unopposed settlement of $1.1 million.
The complaint (T.K., through her mother Sherri Leshore, and A.S., through her mother, Laura Lopez v. ByteDance Technology Co., LTD., Musical.ly Inc., Musical.ly the Cayman Islands Corporation, and TikTok, Inc., 1:19-cv-07915) stated that ByteDance collected data from users under the age of 13 without their parent’s explicit consent “since at least 2014” from its Musical.ly app, which is now a part of TikTok. The data was sold to third-party advertisers. TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) failed to provide safeguards to stop minors from using the app. Further, if a child under 13 years old created an account, he or she was asked to fill out personal information, including: “name, phone number, email address, photo and bio”; this information was available to other users. Additionally, the app used location data for approximately a year. The Class is thought to be around six million American users.
The complaint alleged that Musical.ly “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 Defendants’ video social networking platform… As set forth herein, these unfair and deceptive business practices have had serious ramifications, including, but not limited to, children being stalked on-line by adults.” Further, “while users had the option to set their accounts to ‘private’ so that only approved followers could view their videos, their profiles, including usernames, profile pictures, and bios, remained public and searchable by other users.” It is unlikely that minors fully understood what these differences meant as the default settings were public. Consequently, adults could directly message minors via the app.
ByteDance’s actions allegedly breach the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which prohibits social media companies from collecting children’s data without their parent’s explicit consent. The breach could mean that ByteDance could also face lawsuits from the FTC as it did earlier this year.
“TikTok is firmly committed to safeguarding the data of its users, especially our younger users,” a spokesperson for TikTok said. “Although we disagree with much of what is alleged in the complaint, we have been working with the parties involved and are pleased to have come to a resolution of the issues.”
ByteDance has already been fighting legal battles as of late. It reached a settlement with the FTC for $5.7 million for violating COPPA in 2019. TikTok’s growing popularity, reaching more than 110 million downloads in the United States alone has concerned regulators and lawmakers in light of the app’s relationship with the Chinese government.
“The operators of Musical.ly—now known as TikTok—knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.” TikTok must take down videos made by children under 13 years old.
In response to the FTC settlement, TikTok created a separate in-app experience for users under the age of 13. “In the younger ecosystem, users cannot do things like share their videos on TikTok, comment on others’ videos, message users, or maintain a profile or followers,” the press release stated. These changes did not appear to be enough for users and parents. TikTok did not state if it would be making other changes to the app in response to the recent suit and $1.1 million settlement.