Advocates Say TikTok in Contempt of Court Order
More kids than ever use the site due to COVID19 quarantine, but TikTok flouts settlement agreement with the FTC
WASHINGTON, DC and BOSTON, MA—May 14, 2020—Today, a coalition of leading U.S. child advocacy, consumer, and privacy groups filed a complaint urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate and sanction TikTok for putting kids at risk by continuing to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In February 2019, TikTok paid a $5.7 million fine for violating COPPA, including illegally collecting personal information from children. But 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.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), and a total of 20 organizations demonstrated in their FTC filing that TikTok continues to violate COPPA by:
- failing to delete personal information related to children under 13 it obtained prior to the 2019 settlement order;
- failing to give direct notice to parents and to obtain parents’ consent before collecting kids’ personal information; and
- failing to give parents the right to review or delete their children’s personal information collected by TikTok.
TikTok makes it easy for children to avoid obtaining parental consent. When a child under 13 tries to register using their actual birthdate, they will be signed up for a “younger users account” with limited functions, and no ability to share their videos. If a child is frustrated by this limited functionality, they can immediately register again with a fake birthdate from the same device for an account with full privileges, thereby putting them at risk for both TikTok’s commercial data uses and inappropriate contact from adults. In either case, TikTok makes no attempt to notify parents or obtain their consent. And TikTok doesn’t even comply with the law for those children who stick with limited “younger users accounts.” For these accounts, TikTok collects detailed information about how the child uses the app and uses artificial intelligence to determine what to show next, to keep the child engaged online as long as possible.
The advocates, represented by the Communications & Technology Law Clinic in the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law, asked the FTC to identify and hold responsible those individuals who made or ratified decisions to violate the settlement agreement. They also asked the FTC to prevent TikTok from registering any new accounts for persons in the US until it adopts a reliable method of determining the ages of its users and comes into full compliance with the children’s privacy rules. In light of TikTok’s vast financial resources, the number and severity of the violations, and the large number of US children that use TikTok, they asked the FTC to seek the maximum monetary penalties allowed by law.
Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said “For years, TikTok has ignored COPPA, thereby ensnaring perhaps millions of underage children in its marketing apparatus, and putting children at risk of sexual predation. Now, even after being caught red-handed by the FTC, TikTok continues to flout the law. We urge the Commission to take swift action and sanction TikTok again – this time with a fine and injunctive relief commensurate with the seriousness of TikTok’s serial violations.”
Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said “Congress empowered the FTC to ensure that kids have online protections, yet here is another case of a digital giant deliberately violating the law. 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.”
Michael Rosenbloom, Staff Attorney and Teaching Fellow at the Institute for Public Representation, Georgetown Law, said “The FTC ordered TikTok to delete all personal information of children under 13 years old from its servers, but TikTok has clearly failed to do so. 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. We urge the FTC to hold TikTok to account for continuing to violate both COPPA and its consent decree.”
Katie McInnis, Policy Counsel at Consumer Reports, said “During the pandemic, families and children are turning to digital tools like TikTok to share videos with loved ones. Now more than ever, effective protection of children’s personal information requires robust enforcement in order to incentivize companies, including TikTok, to comply with COPPA and any relevant consent decrees. We urge the FTC to investigate the matters raised in this complaint.”
Groups signing on to the complaint to the FTC are: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, Badass Teachers Association, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defending the Early Years, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Media Education Foundation, Obligation, Inc., Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Parents Across America, ParentsTogether Foundation, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, The Story of Stuff, United Church of Christ, and USPIRG.