Popular video platform TikTok is at the centre of a potentially billion-pound lawsuit over how it collects and uses children’s data.
The challenge is being made by former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield on behalf of children across the UK and EU. She supported the suit’s original claimant, an anonymous 12-year-old.
Lawyers representing the case will claim that TikTok harvests and stores personal information from its underage users. This includes location data, phone numbers, biometric data, and video content, and that the app does not provide sufficient warning or receive necessary legal consent.
In addition, a lack of transparency means that neither children nor parents know how TikTok uses the information.
If the case is successful, TikTok could owe affected underage users thousands of pounds.
Longfield said: “TikTok is a data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network. It has deliberately and successfully deceived parents, whose best intentions are to protect their children and children themselves.
“Parents and children have a right to know that private information, including phone numbers, physical location, and videos of their children are being illegally collected. TikTok appears set on making it as difficult as possible for millions of mothers and fathers to know who is benefiting from this information.
“We want to put a stop to TikTok’s shadowy data collection practices, and demand that they delete all private information that has been illegally processed when children use the app.”
Today I’m launching a legal claim against @tiktok_uk on behalf of millions of children whose data was illegally taken and transferred to unknown third parties for profit. Learn more about our fight to protect children’s privacy @TikTokClaimUK for updates https://t.co/eSCxj4Jwql pic.twitter.com/LBvNHq7Oth
— Anne Longfield (@annelongfield) April 21, 2021
The UK currently has around 3.7 million active users of TikTok, many of whom are children – the app has proven particularly popular with younger generations. Across Europe as a whole, the app has a userbase of around 100 million.
Ofcom statistics claim that 44% of UK 8-12-year-olds use TikTok in spite of the platform banning under-13s. This could potentially amount to over 3.5 million UK children being affected.
The lawsuit will represent all children who have used the app since May 25th, 2018 and will apply regardless of their privacy settings or whether they have an account. Those not wishing to be represented will be able to opt out.
As such, the lawsuit could potentially cost TikTok billions of pounds if it must pay all affected children thousands of pounds of compensation.
The company made around $27 billion in advertising revenue last year.
Tom Southwell, Partner at the law firm Scott + Scott, which is handling the case, said: “The information collected by TikTok represents a severe breach of UK and EU data protection law. Children do not understand how exposed they are when they use the app, and parents have been deliberately left in the dark by TikTok.
“TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children. Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral duty to protect children online, is unacceptable.”
In response, TikTok said that it would fight the case. A spokesperson for the company said: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular. We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”
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TikTok and how it processes user data have been controversial over the past few years. Former US President Donald Trump made the app a centrepiece in his trade war on China, claiming that the company has links to the Chinese Communist Party and transfers user to data to China.
In 2018, the US Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for failing to protect children’s data privacy. The fine was issued after TikTok bought another app, Musical.ly, and combined it with its own platform.
Musical.ly did verify users’ ages and hosted content published by underage users. Following the ruling, TikTok introduced age verification requirements for new users.
In addition, France’s data privacy watchdog, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, opened a case against TikTok in 2020. Included in the wide-ranging privacy case are claims that the app does not ensure the data of minors is protected.