A former children’s commissioner has filed for legal action against the social networking service TikTok following concerns over how the platform has been collecting and using children’s data.
Anne Longfield OBE is suing the company, along with its parent organisation ByteDance, on behalf of millions of children across the UK and EU who have used the video-sharing app, potentially winning each young person thousands of pounds should the lawsuit succeed.
Longfield has accused both organisations of violating UK and European data protection laws, filing the case in an attempt to stop TikTok from “illegally processing millions of children’s information” and demanding that all stored personal data be deleted.
It is alleged that the platform rakes in a huge amount of its child users’ private information – including phone numbers, pictures, videos, location and biometric data – to sell on to unknown third parties for profit. Lawyers will state that the company is compiling such information without sufficient warning, transparency or the consent required by law.
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Those behind the legal action believe every child who has used the app since May 2018, regardless of their account status or privacy settings, may have had their personal data collected. Any children not wanting to be represented canopt out.
Longfield has said that parents and children will be “shocked” at the sheer scale of the issue, with the UK’s independent media regulator Ofcom claiming that 44% of the nation’s 8–12-year-olds use TikTok. “We think there is likely to be in the region of 3.5m children in the UK alone that fall within this claim and many more across Europe,” added the former children’s commissioner.
Calling the platform’s practices “shadowy”, Longfield said parents have a “right to know” that “behind the fun songs, dance challenges and lip-sync trends lies something far more sinister”, adding that the platform has “deliberately and successfully deceived parents”.
“TikTok and ByteDance’s advertising revenue is built on the personal information of its users, including children. Profiting from this information without fulfilling its legal obligations, and its moral obligation to protect children online, is unacceptable.”
In the US in 2019, Bytedance was fined US5.7m (£4.1m) by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle allegations that Musical.ly, which ByteDance bought and renamed TikTok, illegally collected information from minors. It was the largest FTC penalty in a children’s privacy case.
The organisation has also faced previous legal action in the UK and South Korea over its collection and use of children’s personal data.
While the case was first filed in December 2020, details were first made public today (21 April).
Last year, a London-based judge granted a 12-year-old girl anonymity in the case to protect her from cyberbullying and other negativity at the hands of TikTok users. She is now the lead claimant in the case, which will be stayed until the Supreme Court reaches a decision in a similar case against Google.
In response to the accusations, the platform has said that privacy and safety are “top priorities”, claiming to have “robust policies, processes and technologies” in place to protect all users, but particularly young people.
“We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action,” said the company.