An eye on TikTok

During the last year the video sharing platform TikTok has become very popular. And according to Euronews TikTok’s popularity spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the app being the second-most installed application in April 2020 worldwide, with more than 107 million downloads. But not only the platform’s popularity has grown. The accusations of the platforms as a place for adult sexual grooming of young children and as a marketplace for pornography and prostitution and much more have also flourished.
 
Moreover the platforms also stand accused of a lack of general data protection and protection of children’s data. Let’s look at four of these data related cases:
 
  • The EU
The newest one stem from the EU. In June 2020, the European Data Protection Board decided to establish a task force to coordinate potential actions and to acquire a more comprehensive overview of TikTok’s processing and practices across the EU. The EDPB “announced its decision to establish a taskforce to coordinate potential actions and to acquire a more comprehensive overview of TikTok’s processing and practices across the EU”.
 
  • The Netherlands
Only one month before this, in May 2020, the Dutch Data Protection Authority (Dutch DPA) launched an investigation into the media platform, TikTok over privacy concerns. The app is especially popular among children – and children are the main reason behind the Dutch Investigation.“We investigate whether the app has a privacy-friendly design. We’ll also check whether the information TikTok provides when children install and use the app is easy to understand and adequately explains how their personal data is collected, processed and used. Lastly, we’ll look at whether parental consent is required for TikTok to collect, store and use children’s personal data”, Monique Verdier, deputy chairman of the Dutch DPA stated in a press release
 
 
  • The US
A little more than a year ago the Chinese app was fined $5.7m / £4.2m by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US for collecting the personal data of children under 13 without parental consent. At the time a spokesperson from the The American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated that the agency “uncovered disturbing practices” that “reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children.”
According to The New York Times the settlement with the FTC had implied an agreement that TikTok should obtain a parent’s permission before collecting their child’s personal information and an obligation to delete personal information, including videos, of any children identified as younger than 13 and to remove videos and other personal details of users whose ages were unknown. But according to Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy TikTok has failed to abide by these commitments: “For years, TikTok has ignored the children’s privacy law, 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 F.T.C., TikTok continues to flout the law” , said Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
 
 
  • The UK
Only three months – in the summer of 2019 – later TikTok came under investigation in the UK for its handling of the personal data of its young users, and whether it prioritizes the safety of children on its social network. Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner said: “We are looking at the transparency tools for children,” Denham said on Tuesday. “We’re looking at the messaging system, which is completely open, we’re looking at the kind of videos that are collected and shared by children online. We do have an active investigation into TikTok right now, so watch this space.”
 
As some of these investigations are still running and we are waiting for the results the two main question remaining are:
 
Does TikTok have an actual wish for data ethics and the welfare of children? And when will the time come for all the other platforms to be called out that take advantage of children’s data on their platforms?

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