Democrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations

an image of the TikTok app logo

A group of House Democrats on Thursday called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate allegations that social media platform TikTok had violated a child privacy agreement.

Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), and a dozen other Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, asking that the FTC look into a complaint submitted earlier this month that alleged child privacy violations by TikTok.

The complaint, which was submitted to the FTC by a group of 20 nonprofit groups, accused TikTok of violating a $5.7 million agreement reached with the FTC in 2019 that settled previous allegations that the company had violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The groups claimed that TikTok had violated the settlement by not deleting personal information collected from users under age 13, not posting a clear privacy policy and not making “reasonable efforts” to ensure the parents or guardians of users were aware of the information being collected.

The House Democrats raised concerns that TikTok’s popularity, which has spiked during COVID-19 lockdowns, may make the platform a tempting place for “predators to solicit children.”

“While all children must be careful when using a service like TikTok, children younger than 13 are less equipped to navigate this threat and are particularly vulnerable to abuse when their parents are uninformed about the application,” the lawmakers wrote. “There are inherent dangers whenever children are online, but as long TikTok is out of compliance with COPPA and the consent decree, young children are at heightened risk.”

A spokesperson for the FTC confirmed the agency had received the letter, but had no further comment. 

A spokesperson for TikTok told The Hill that the company “takes the issue of safety seriously for all our users, and we continue to further strengthen our safeguards and introduce new measures to protect young people on the app.”

TikTok has a special program for “younger users” that filters content for age-appropriate viewing. The spokesperson pointed to other programs that address child privacy concerns, including TikTok’s Youth Portal to help families and teens learn about internet safety, and the Family Pairing program, which allows parents to control how much time children spend on TikTok and what they see. 

“As part of our commitment to our users, we are committed to continuously evaluating and improving our protections,” the spokesperson added. 

TikTok has come under the microscope in recent months due to the company being owned by Chinese-based group ByteDance. A 2017 Chinese intelligence law requires companies and citizens to disclose sensitive information to the government, raising concerns on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration about potential espionage threats. 

The House Democrats addressed this issue, writing that “given the reasonable concerns that the Chinese government may have access to the data TikTok collects on Americans, it is all the more troubling that the company appears to intentionally be in violation of U.S. data privacy laws.”

TikTok has continually pushed back against charges that it poses a national security risk and that it cooperates with the Chinese government.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote to intelligence agencies last year asking them to assess whether TikTok was a national security threat, and legislation has been introduced to ban federal employees from using the app on government-issued devices.

Tags ByteDance ByteDance Charles Schumer Children's Online Privacy Protection Act Chuck Schumer Federal Trade Commission Internet privacy Jan Schakowsky Privacy law Social networking services tiktok TikTok Tom Cotton Video software
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