Bipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok's child privacy policies

Bipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok's child privacy policies
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of four senators on Friday urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate allegations that TikTok violated child privacy commitments it made to resolve a prior complaint.

The short-form video-sharing platform last year agreed to settle with the agency over charges that one of its predecessors, Musical.ly, violated the federal law governing privacy safeguards for children online.

Under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, developers of apps geared toward children cannot collect personally identifiable information on users under the age of 13 without consent from parents or legal guardians.

ADVERTISEMENT

The complaint, which also resulted in a $5.7 million fine, alleged the company collected without consent the names, emails and videos of users under the age of 13.

TikTok agreed as part of the settlement to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information and to delete any information about users identified as under 13.

Earlier this month, 20 children's and consumer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that TikTok violated the privacy commitments made in the settlement.

The complaint identifies videos posted by children under the age of 13 still on the platform.

It also raises concerns over a specific service the company developed for users under 13, TikTok for Younger Users. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Federal privacy laws, regulations promulgated under those laws, and consent decrees resulting from privacy violations are effective only if they are vigorously enforced,” Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday The Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary MORE (D-Mass.), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases Trump warns of defense bill veto over military base renaming amendment House chairman predicts approval for 'very strong' amendment to change Confederate-named bases MORE (R-Mo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnUS lawmakers call on EU to label entire Hezbollah a terrorist organization Hillicon Valley: Trump tweet gets warning again | Australia under cyberattack | North Face pulls Facebook ads Republicans take aim at Google in fight to remove legal shield MORE (R-Tenn.) wrote to the FTC Friday.

“As the ongoing public health crisis continues to catalyze children’s increased tech use, the FTC must increase its attention to the dangers that minors encounter online, including the manipulation of kids’ attention and their data for advertising dollars.”

TikTok has denied the allegations in the complaint, pointing to efforts it has made to protect children on the platform.
 
"TikTok 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. Some recent initiatives include the launch of our Youth Portal, where teens and their families can learn about internet safety, and Family Pairing, which gives parents greater control over their teenager's TikTok experience," a spokesperson for the company told The Hill.

"In the US, we accommodate users under 13 in a limited app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for a younger audience. As part of our commitment to our users, we are committed to continuously evaluating and improving our protections."

The request comes a day after a group of 144 House Democrats on Thursday called on the FTC to investigate the same allegations.

The top two Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, ranking member Greg Walden (Ore.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the ranking member of the panel's consumer protection subcommittee, raised similar concerns in a letter to TikTok last week.

The pressure on the FTC to investigate the allegations comes as TikTok's popularity, especially among children and teens, continues to skyrocket globally.

The app has been downloaded well over 100 million times in the U.S. and has seen increased growth as many Americans stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.

— Updated at 3 p.m.