TikTok, the popular social media app aimed at teens, has fallen foul of Federal Trade Commission guidelines and has been ordered to pay $5.7 million for failing to adequately protect minors.
The settlement relates to the company collecting data from children below the age of 13 without their parent's permission, a breach of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The infringement occurred during TikTok's former guise as Musical.ly
TikTok has responded by introducing stricter age-gating for its app, although only within the US.
The FTC's Decision and TikTok's Record Fine
The allegations that TikTok was illegally collecting personal information from children stems back to when the app was named Musical.ly. It rebranded as TikTok in August 2018.
The FTC expressed concerns that the app, which allows users to upload 15 second video clips online and share them with others, had many users who were children under the age of 13, using the app potentially without their parents' knowledge. For TikTok, this is a problem.
In the US, it's a direct requirement of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that “websites and online services must obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under the age of 13.”
Some of the main concerns from the FTC were that, among its features, Musical.ly allowed users to create profiles with pictures and personal biographies, as well as the implementation of a messaging system. All of this was publicly available to other users who used the app. Until October of last year, it also used geo-location data to identify other app users within a 50 mile radius.
The complaint accused the operators of the Musical.ly app (Chinese company ByteDance) of being aware that a large section of its users were under the age of 13, and that it had received thousands of complaints about the app from parents. According to the FTC, the fine marks the biggest civil penalty obtained by the organisation in relation to children's privacy.
How Has TikTok Responded?
While Musical.ly was the target of the complaint, many of the issues carried across to the TikTok app. As a direct result of the settlement, the app now implements much stronger age-gating. Anyone with a stated date-of-birth that puts them under the age of 13 will not be allowed access to the service.
This has caused problems for many TikTok users who have purportedly ‘accidentally' entered the wrong date of birth when signing up, and now find themselves locked out of their own accounts. TikTok has responded by asking these users to upload a photo of government ID to prove their age. However, this appears to have caused even more confusion.
We're hearing that a few people are having trouble accessing TikTok today. If you typed the wrong birthday, head to the "Report a Problem" section of the app and provide confirmation that you're age 13 or older by submitting a copy of your government ID.
Not here. In the app.
— TikTok (@tiktok_us) February 27, 2019
TikTok has also stated that it will actively delete all content on its platform that has previously been uploaded by users under the age of 13. However, it seems it intends to still cater for younger users to some degree. Its response to the FTC settlement mention that these users will be siloed into what it's calling “a separate app experience”, with the implication that they will be able to watch curated videos, but not upload their own.
In a statement, TikTok said:
Today, the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement agreement related to Musical.ly Inc. It’s our priority to create a safe and welcoming experience for all of our users, and as we developed the global TikTok platform, we’ve been committed to creating measures to further protect our user community – including tools for parents to protect their teens and for users to enable additional privacy settings. While we’ve always seen TikTok as a place for everyone, we understand the concerns that arise around younger users.
Does this Decision Affect TikTok Outside the US?
No. As this settlement comes from the FTC, it only affects how TikTok operates within the US. So far, the updated age restrictions only apply to US users. Some have criticized the company for making statements about its eagerness to protect its younger fan base, while not implementing the new age barrier globally.
Available in over 150 markets, and with 500 million users globally, of which the US accounts for around 65 million, it's feasible that there could still be a high proportion of users under the age of 13 outside the US, still using this teen-focused app.