TikTok has been hit with a class-action lawsuit that, if successful, could cost the company billions.
The former Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has brought a legal claim against TikTok for allegedly illegally processing the personal information of millions of children. The case is part of a class-action lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that TikTok and its parent company ByteDance are “deliberately violating UK and EU children’s data protection law.” Specifically, they claim TikTok does not have consent to take and process children’s data, and that it collects that data without sufficient warning.
TikTok was fined $5.7 million in February 2019 by the US Federal Trade Commission for the way the app it bought, Musical.ly, handled children’s data. South Korea’s media watchdog fined TikTok £123,000 for collecting the data of 6,000 children under the age of 14 in July 2020.
Following its US fine, TikTok introduced a feature to verify the age of its child users worldwide. In a press release announcing the lawsuit, Longfield and the law firm taking on the case incorrectly claimed the age verification features are only available in the United States.
TikTok asked to delete child user data
Longfield, who is supporting the claim by law firm Scott + Scott, wants TikTok to delete its UK and European child users’ information, and to pay them compensation.
“TikTok is a data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network,” says Longfield. “It has deliberately and successfully deceived parents, whose best intentions are to protect their children and children themselves.”
Longfield and Scott + Scott allege that children’s telephone numbers, videos, pictures, and their location, along with biometric data, are collected by TikTok. The suit claims that every child user that has used TikTok since 25 May 2018 has had their data scooped up in this way.
“The information collected by TikTok represents a severe breach of UK and EU data protection law,” says Tom Southwell, partner at Scott + Scott. “Children do not understand how exposed they are when they use the app, and parents have been deliberately left in the dark by TikTok.
“TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children,” adds Southwell. “Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral duty to protect children online, is unacceptable.”
ByteDance accused of ‘shadowy practices’
Internal data uncovered by the New York Times indicates that as of spring 2020, 43% of TikTok’s users were classified as being 14 or under. One in three German users at the time were also believed to be under 14, and 45% of French users.
Longfield and Southwell both claim that TikTok’s company structure, which has a European headquarters in London which reports into a Cayman Islands-located parent company, is “deliberately opaque”.
“Parents and children have a right to know that private information, including phone numbers, physical location, and videos of their children are being illegally collected,” says Longfield. “TikTok appears set on making it as difficult as possible for millions of mothers and fathers to know who is benefiting from this information.
“We want to put a stop to TikTok’s shadowy data collection practices, and demand that they delete all private information that has been illegally processed when children use the app.”
The law firm and Longfield are inviting the parents of 3.5 million UK children who believe they may have been affected to sign up to the suit.
TikTok: privacy & safety ‘priorities’
Some child safety experts are nonplussed by the action. “Unless they have new evidence that has eluded the experts, it feels like another attempt at targeting the new kid in the class,” says Eva Fog Noer, a Danish child safety expert.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular. We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”