FTC fines TikTok $5.7 million over child privacy violations

Ann Santiago
March 2, 2019

TikTok's total new users for January reached 71.3 million worldwide, excluding Android users in China where the app is known as Douyin.

For both these reasons, it's now the recipient of the largest civil penalty for violating the online privacy of children. The act requires websites and online services to have parental consent before collecting information from children under 13 years old.

TikTok, previously known as Musical.ly, lets users record themselves lip-synching to popular music videos and share the clips with friends.

TikTok claimed some 500 million users worldwide past year, making it one of the most popular worldwide apps. Users were required to provide an email address, phone number, username, first and last name, a short biography, and a profile picture to register for the app.

In response to the FTC action, TikTok on Wednesday announced a separate app for people under 13. While it is not out of the realm of possibility that an internet user would lie about their age (noooo!), the fine also stems from the fact that the app-maker had received "thousands of complaints" from parents about children under 13 creating accounts.

The FTC noted media reports suggesting adults on Musical.ly had contacted children who were obviously under 13 because "a look at users' profiles reveals that many of them gave their date of birth or grade in school".

In a statement posted to its website, the company said it will create "a limited, separate app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically" for a younger audience. And when parents demanded that their children's data be deleted, the company failed to do so, the FTC says.

"Just because you say it's intended for over-13 doesn't mean that it is", said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a conference call Wednesday.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., one of the authors of COPPA, said in a statement that while this may be a record-high fine, it's not high enough given the harm done to children and the need to deter other companies from doing the same thing. The company has said it will soon launch the series across its global markets.

Common Sense Media was part of a coalition of consumer and privacy groups that filed a complaint with the FTC a year ago alleging YouTube routinely violates COPPA, but the commission - as is its standard practice when receiving complaints - has declined to comment on whether it is pursuing an investigation.

Privacy advocates, meanwhile, said the FTC should be more aggressive in policing COPPA, especially in an era when popular general-interest sites such as YouTube and games such as Fortnite are widely popular among children.

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