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.
Consumer Reports, 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.