Advocates File Complaint With FTC Against TikTok For Violating Prior Agreement

Twenty advocacy groups, led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They alleged that social media company TikTok has violated a 2019 settlement agreement and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

In February 2019, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, was fined $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data and violating COPPA. Under the settlement agreement, TikTok agreed “to either destroy all personal information in its control at the time of the entry of the consent decree or alternatively, to destroy all personal information collected from users under 13 years of age.” However, advocacy groups argued in the new complaint that “TikTok has not destroyed all personal information collected from users under age 13…Contrary to the terms of the consent decree, TikTok fails to make reasonable efforts to ensure that a parent of a child receives direct notice of its practices regarding the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information.”

The advocacy groups found videos from 2016 posted by children under 13 still on TikTok and the groups claimed that TikTok has yet to notify parents of its collection practices and it has “no means of obtaining verifiable parental consent before any collection, use, or disclosure of children’s personal information as required by the consent decree and COPPA Rule.” The groups also claimed that there is no way for parents to delete their children’s personal information from the app either, in violation of COPPA.

Finally, the advocates claimed that TikTok’s limited-functionality “younger user account” did not satisfy COPPA, saying because of the limited functionality, children may lie about their age and that TikTok still collects data from these accounts without obtaining verifiable parental consent.

TikTok stated, “[w]e take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users.”

“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,” Michael Rosenbloom, staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, which is representing the advocacy groups. “We urge the FTC to hold TikTok to account for continuing to violate both COPPA and its consent decree.”

TikTok has seen growing popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of April, the app reached 2 billion downloads. Tech giant Google was recently sued for COPPA violations. Google paid a $170 million fine for violations, YouTube paid a $170 million fine and Facebook paid a record $5 billion fine for privacy violations.

“Congress empowered the FTC to ensure that kids have online protections, yet here is another case of a digital giant deliberately violating the law,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said. “The failure of the FTC to ensure that TikTok protects the privacy of millions of children, including through its use of predictive AI applications, is another reason why there are questions whether the agency can be trusted to effectively oversee the kids’ data law.”