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Investigation says TikTok is violating children's privacy

TikTok accused of violating children’s privacy

TikTok could face a GBP 27 million fine from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) saying an investigation shows the company may have breached UK data protection law, failing to protect children’s privacy. After complaints from consumer organisations, TikTok recently committed to align its practices with the EU rules on advertising and consumer protection. 

The EU agreement came after complaints from the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) accusing the company of breaching EU consumer rules including failing to protect children from hidden advertising and inappropriate content.

The ICO has issued TikTok with a ‘notice of intent’ – a legal document that precedes a potential fine. The notice sets out the ICO’s provisional view that TikTok breached UK data protection law between May 2018 and July 2020.

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The ICO investigation found the company may have:

  • processed the data of children under the age of 13 without appropriate parental consent,
  • failed to provide proper information to its users in a concise, transparent and easily understood way, and
  • processed special category data, without legal grounds to do so.

Information Commissioner, John Edwards said:

“We all want children to be able to learn and experience the digital world, but with proper data privacy protections. Companies providing digital services have a legal duty to put those protections in place, but our provisional view is that TikTok fell short of meeting that requirement.

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“I’ve been clear that our work to better protect children online involves working with organisations but will also involve enforcement action where necessary. In addition to this, we are currently looking into how over 50 different online services are conforming with the Children’s code and have six ongoing investigations looking into companies providing digital services who haven’t, in our initial view, taken their responsibilities around child safety seriously enough.”

Companies who breach the UK GDPR and/or the Data Protection Act can be fined up to GBP 17.5 million or 4% of the company’s annual global turnover, whichever is higher. 

When TikTok in late June reached an agreement with the EU Commission, EU commissioner Didier Reynders said that this means consumers will be able to spot all kinds of advertisement that they are exposed to when using this platform” .

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“Despite today’s commitment, we will continue to monitor the situation in the future, paying particular attention to the effects on young users,” he added.

The Commission said the agreement with TikTok means:

  • Users can report advertisements and offers that could potentially push or trick children into purchasing goods or services;
  • Branded content now abides by a policy protecting users, which prohibits the promotion of inappropriate products and services, such as alcohol, “get rich quick” schemes and cigarettes;
  • Users are prompted to switch on a toggle when they publish content captioned with specific brand-related keywords such as #ad or #sponsored;
  • If a user has more than 10,000 followers, their videos are reviewed by TikTok against its Branded Content Policy and Community Guidelines to ensure that the content is appropriate;
  • Policies clarify how to purchase and use coins, and pop-up windows will provide the estimated price in local currencies. Consumers are allowed to withdraw within 14 days from the purchase, and their purchase history is also available;
  • Policies also clarify how to get rewards from TikTok and how to send gifts, for which users will be able to easily calculate their price;
  • Paid advertisement in videos will be identified with a new label, which will be tested for effectiveness by a third party;
  • Users are able to report undisclosed branded content, and new rules for hashtags and labels will be implemented.

However, the European consumer organization, BEUC was not too impressed:

“We welcome that TikTok has committed to improve the transparency of marketing on their platform but the impact of such commitments on consumers remains highly uncertain. Despite over a year of dialogue with TikTok, the investigation is now closed, leaving significant concerns that we raised unaddressed,” BEUC’s deputy director general, Ursula Pachl, said in a statement.

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