Video sharing app TikTok has agreed to a record $5.7m fine (a little over €5m) for illegally collecting personal information from users under the age of 13, including their names, locations and email addresses. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the fine imposed on the Chinese-owned app is the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the agency, and should serve as an example for other companies offering their services to underage users.
The FTC stated that the app required users to provide an email address, phone number, first and last name, a short biography, and a profile picture to sign up. However, TikTok failed to seek parental consent before collecting this data, as required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA. All this despite the app knew that many of its users were under the age of 13 “and should have taken greater precautions.”
The consumer protection bureau highlighted the fact that TikTok currently has over 65 million active users in the United States alone, growing in popularity among smartphone users and surpassing competitors like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat among younger generations. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons.
TikTok responded by releasing a corporate statement expressing its commitment toward taking measures to protect users, including tools for parents to protect their kids. A few days after this statement, the company introduced a separate app for minors “which prevents them from doing things such as sharing videos, commenting on other users’ videos, messaging users, or maintaining a profile or followers.”
Musical.ly, the U.S. start-up that merged with TikTok, allowing it to break into the U.S. market, received thousands of complaints from parents that their children under 13 had created accounts without their authorization. However, the platform didn’t take any measures at all, despite COPPA requires that websites and online services directed to children obtain verifiable parental consent -not just ticking a checkbox as other websites do- before collecting, using or revealing children’s personally identifiable information. “In our view, these practices reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children,” said the FTC Commissioners after the ruling was made public.
Last year, TikTok reached 500 million active users worldwide, making it one of the most popular apps on the market. However, this growth has not been without controversy: TikTok has been the subject of worldwide criticism for showing sexually-explicit and other inappropriate content for minors, as well as lacking effective moderation tools. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is estimated to be worth 75 billion dollars, and its global reach sets it apart from other Chinese-owned social media platforms, which are struggling to expand beyond their home turf.