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Lawsuits pose new challenge for TikTok

Lawsuits pose new challenge for TikTok
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The social media app TikTok was hit by two lawsuits in the last week, a new challenge for the company which is already under the intense scrutiny of federal regulators and lawmakers.

The lawsuits are drawing new public attention on the company's practices and are highlighting critics' two chief concerns: TikTok's ties with the Chinese government and how it handles the data of minors.

TikTok, which has seen its popularity soar, has already been downloaded over 110 million times in the U.S. But the company, which was bought and repackaged by a Chinese firm ByteDance, is at a critical stretch as it reportedly faces a federal review over national security concerns and with lawmakers floating legislation to crack down on its data practices.

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One of the lawsuits, was quickly settled a day after it was filed, but the company still faces a class-action suit in California.

In that lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Northern District Court of California, Misty Hong, a student, is accusing the company of transferring private user data to China, despite the company publicly denying those claims.

Hong's lawsuit also alleges that the short-form video app secretly collected information about users, including their locations, ages, private messages, phone numbers, contacts, genders, browsing histories, cell-phone serial numbers and IP addresses.

Hong’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of all American TikTok users.

The company did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations in the lawsuit, but TikTok has said that all user data is stored in Virginia, with a backup server in Singapore.

"None of our data is subject to Chinese law," the company wrote in an October blog post.

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The lawsuit is likely to amplify the concerns of lawmakers, who worry that data collected by TikTok on Americans, including their personal information, could fall into the hands of the Chinese government.

There is so far little evidence to show that Beijing has any access to the data collected from U.S. users by TikTok, but critics point to Chinese law, which gives the government broad authority for search-and-seizure, meaning the Chinese Community Party could compel ByteDance to hand over user data.

In October, Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerReestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt' House Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Graham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonCotton mocks NY Times over claim of nonpartisanship, promises to submit op-eds as test Barrett fight puts focus on abortion in 2020 election COVID outbreak threatens GOP's Supreme Court plans MORE (R-Ark.) asked U.S. intelligence officials to assess whether TikTok poses "national security risks.”

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. is reportedly examining ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, which was later rebranded as TikTok, for potential national security risks. The secretive government panel which must reviews some mergers involving foreign players could pressure ByteDance to sell TikTok.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyTrump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade Infrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs MORE (R-Mo.) is another lawmaker who has sounded alarms over TikTok’s ties to the Chinese government.

Hawley introduced legislation last month which would block companies like TikTok from collecting private data beyond what is required to run their services or transfer data on U.S. users to countries where governments can easily access it. He also invited TikTok to a hearing but the company did not provide a witness.

The second lawsuit was also brought by TikTok users.

The lawsuit, brought by two families in the Northern District Court of Illinois, alleges that ByteDance tracked, collected and disclosed information, including phone numbers, names and emails, to a third party about minors that used the company's Musical.ly app.

Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a federal law written in 1998 that offers privacy safeguards for children online, developers of apps geared toward children cannot collect personally identifiable information of children under 13 without consent from parents or legal guardians.

TikTok quickly settled that lawsuit a day later. As part of the settlement, a fund of $1.1 million will be created to be distributed to claimants, Gary Mason, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, told The Hill Thursday.

“TikTok is firmly committed to safeguarding the data of its users, especially our younger users,” a spokesperson for TikTok told The Hill Friday in response to questions about the settlement.

“We were made aware of the allegations in the complaint some time ago and, although we disagree with much of what is alleged in the complaint, we have been working with the parties involved and are pleased to have come to a resolution of the issues.”

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The Federal Trade Commission earlier this year announced it had reached a $5.7 million settlement with Musical.ly over a separate complaint about COPPA violations.

While the lawsuit in Illinois is settled, similar challenges could be on the way.

James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on making content appropriate for children, said the Illinois lawsuit shows "that parents aren't satisfied with the status quo, of either companies' business practices or the FTC's enforcement of COPPA."

"Both need to improve to better ensure children's privacy,”, Steyer said in an email to The Hill on Friday. 

The concerns over TikTok’s handling of children's data has also surfaced in Congress.

Last month, Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Senate Judiciary to vote on subpoena for Twitter CEO next week Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse MORE (R-Tenn.) called on TikTok to stop collecting data on American children.

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“TikTok is China’s best detective—surreptitiously collecting and sharing user data, tracking American tweens and teenagers, and manipulating children’s online purchases,” she said in a statement.

TikTok will be closely watched on how it handles these concerns — and the potential for more user lawsuits.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that TikTok's head, Alex Zhu, will be visiting Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. The Post said Zhu requested a meeting with Hawley's office.

TikTok and Hawley's office did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill on a potential meeting. Blackburn will meet with Zhu next week, the Tennessee lawmaker’s office confirmed to The Hill Friday.

Zhu requested a meeting with Cotton, but his office was unable to accommodate the request, the senator’s office told The Hill Friday. Cotton’s office and TikTok held staff level meetings earlier this week.

The Hill has reached out to both Schumer’s office and TikTok for information about whether Zhu will meet the Senate's Democratic leader.