Why we’re taking on TikTok

Enough is enough.

When our advocacy forced YouTube to change almost everything about the way it treats kids on its platform last October, we promised there was more where that came from. Today, it’s here. CCFC and our allies at the Center for Digital Democracy have just filed an FTC complaint against TikTok, the shortform video platform whose (literally) endless feed of jokes, dances, recipes, and “challenges” have made it one of the most popular apps for kids on the planet – with one of the most predatory business models in tech.

TikTok has already been in hot water with the FTC: just last year, the company was required to delete troves of data it had knowingly and illegally collected from thousands of children. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, had to pay a fine of $5.7 million, and entered a consent decree with the FTC that forbade them from collecting and using children’s data in similar ways again. At the time, CCFC and our allies were concerned that for a company valued in the billions of dollars, this fine wasn’t enough to deter future violations of children’s privacy by TikTok. We were right.

When CCFC, the Center for Digital Democracy, and our attorneys at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation conducted our own investigation this spring, we discovered that TikTok wasn’t living up to its end of the settlement. In clear violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the app was still collecting and sharing the personal data of children under 13 without getting parental permission. And the problem isn’t just about ads: as our Josh Golin told The New York Times, by ensnaring underage users in its marketing apparatus, TikTok puts perhaps millions of kids at risk of sexual predation.

Our complaint, which is supported by a coalition of 20 leading advocacy organizations, details TikTok’s ongoing violations of children’s privacy. In addition to failing to delete the personal information it collected from children under 13 before 2019 – a clear violation of the settlement – TikTok has taken a page right out of YouTube’s (failed!) playbook: the company claims it doesn’t need to get parental permission, because “regular” TikTok accounts are for users 13 and up. Kids under 13, TikTok says, can only sign up for “younger users” accounts, which have very limited functionality: they can’t upload videos or message other users, two core elements of the app.

But our investigation found that neither the new privacy policy nor the new “younger user” accounts are good enough. Kids who are frustrated by the limited functionality of the “young” version of the app can easily lie about their age. (All they have to do is re-register for the app with a fake birthday!) As a result, there are a ton of kids under 13 on TikTok, including many of the app’s most popular “stars.”

Even if kids do stick with “younger user” accounts, TikTok still collects and uses their data in ways that violate the law – the app’s key feature, the algorithmically-curated video feed, collects heaps of data about what kids watch and for how long in order to make the “experience” (of interminable, persuasively-designed scrolling) more “enjoyable.”  Using AI to collect unknowable amounts of information about kids, and then using that information to keep kids on their devices as long as possible in order to serve them ads, isn’t just creepy. It’s illegal unless you get parental permission – and TikTok doesn’t even try to do that.

The truth is, TikTok profits so much from the presence of kids on their platform that last year’s $5.7 million fine is meaningless – like YouTube and Facebook before them, they can write off that kind of penalty as a cost of doing business. That’s why we’re calling on the FTC not only to sanction TikTok and hold its executives accountable, but to enact the maximum penalties allowed by law — $42,530 per violation, which could amount to billions of dollars. And until TikTok can adopt an effective age verification policy and actually be COPPA-compliant, we’re urging the FTC to prevent TikTok from registering any new users in the US.

Tech industry and business pundits may fret that sanctions of this kind could upend, or even destroy, TikTok’s business model. To that we say: good. With kids across the world now forced to connect with their friends in an online-only world, Big Tech profiteers like TikTok cannot be allowed to exploit kids any longer. Now is the time to upend a business model that exposes children to increased surveillance, invasive targeted advertising, inappropriate content, and sexual predation. Now is the time to upend every business model that puts the profits of multibillion dollar companies ahead of kids’ privacy, wellbeing, and safety.

Enough is enough, and we’ve had enough.