Despite its promises to cut ties with the data generated by underage users on its platform, TikTok continues to be a privacy-violating nightmare—especially for kids.
That’s according to a complaint filed to the FTC by more than a dozen consumer advocacy groups focused on tech privacy and consumer rights. The complaint alleges that the short-form video giant—which boasts a massive base among the under-20 crowd—has failed to uphold the pledges to protect the digital privacy of teens and tweens, more than a full year after a record-breaking U.S. Federal Trade Commission fine was levied against the company for violating exactly that.
“[U.S.] Congress empowered the FTC to ensure that kids have online protections, yet here is another case of a digital giant deliberately violating the law,” said Jeff Chester, Director of the Centre for Digital Democracy, and one of the names calling for further investigation on TikTok.
“The failure of the FTC to ensure that TikTok protects the privacy of millions of children […] is another reason why there are questions whether the agency can be trusted to effectively oversee the kids’ data law,” he added.
To back up a bit, these allegations are coming more than a year after the FTC hit TikTok with a hefty $US5.7 ($9) million dollar fine on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act—or COPPA—in some pretty major ways. As the FTC explained in a post regarding the record-breaking fine at the time, COPPA mandates that sites and apps directed towards the under-13 crowd get the consent of a parent before collecting any “personal information.”
Historically, tech companies have weaseled out of lawsuits on the grounds that “personal information” can mean just about anything you want it to at any given time. But by COPPA’s standards, TikTok was certainly guilty of the charge: not only did the app capture video data, but it collected email addresses, phone numbers, geolocation, and more. That’s in addition to all the data flowing to the other third-party trackers and ad-targeting tech that the app comes packaged with, which allow TikTok to pull data on everything from your entire contact list to the list of apps you have on your phone.
Fees aside, the settlement also saw TikTok agree to comply with COPPA moving forward, along with promising to delete any preexisting clips and personal data belonging to users in the under-13 set. This past year, the company also tacked a mandatory age limit onto the app, funelling these younger users into a limited (and COPPA-friendly) version of its original platform when they try to sign up.
TikTok did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment and we’ll update this post when we receive a reply.
But as the complaint points out, a kid that wants the full TikTok experience can easily just… lie about their age to bypass the block, making it effectively useless. Meanwhile, they add that “[the] limited nature of this account” actually incentives kids to lie about their age. The groups describe that the platform, unsurprisingly, still has loads of “regular account holders” who are clearly under 13, a full year after the company’s FTC settlement. Not only that, but as they point out, much of this content was uploaded “as far back as 2016, years prior to the consent decree.” Put another way, that doesn’t only make TikTok guilty of continuing to collect data on kids, but also of holding onto the vast archives of kiddie data that it promised to scrap. While TikTok, ultimately, might not be able to stop a kid from lying about their age, at the very least it can—and should—uphold this end of the bargain.