FTC fines TikTok app $5.7M over alleged privacy violations

FTC fines TikTok app $5.7M over alleged privacy violations
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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday levied a $5.7 million fine against media app TikTok over allegations that it illegally collected personal information about children under 13.

The multimillion-dollar settlement is the largest civil penalty the FTC has obtained in a children's privacy case, commissioners said. It comes as part of a settlement agreement between the agency and TikTok.

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The FTC alleged that TikTok violated the federal child privacy law by collecting the "names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13" without their parents' permission. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires websites and apps to obtain parental consent when collecting and sharing data on young users.

"The operators of Musical.ly—now known as TikTok—knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.”

The alleged child privacy violations occurred before Musical.ly merged with TikTok last year. The popular app allows users to create and share lip-syncing videos, and as of Wednesday it had been downloaded one billion times across Android and iOS phones. It was downloaded 663 million times in 2018, outstripping Instagram by more than 2 million downloads. 

Musical.ly, before it merged with TikTok, had long boasted a young fanbase. Though its guidelines restricted the app to users "13+ only," many users signified on their profiles they were under 13, raising COPPA concerns.

The FTC said the app received "thousands of complaints from parents" about accounts that were created without parental permission. All user profiles on Musical.ly were automatically public, meaning their "profile bio, picture and videos" were available for viewing by other users.

Under the settlement, TikTok must take down all videos from children under 13. 

TikTok in a statement on Wednesday said it will now require new users to verify their age and will work to verify the ages of users currently on the profile. The app said it will work to ensure that users under 13 access a "limited, separate app experience" replete with "safety and privacy protections."

The FTC voted 5-0 to accept the settlement with TikTok.

Democratic Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter in a statement applauded the fine as a "major milestone" for COPPA enforcement, but added that "individuals at large companies have often avoided scrutiny" during FTC investigations.

"Executives of big companies who call the shots as companies break the law should be held accountable," Chopra and Slaughter wrote. "As we continue to pursue violations of law, we should prioritize uncovering the role of corporate officers and directors and hold accountable everyone who broke the law."