US probing allegations TikTok violated children's privacy

US Justice Department is looking into allegations that TikTok failed to protect children’s privacy


Reuters July 08, 2020
PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON:

The Federal Trade Commission and the US Justice Department are looking into allegations that popular app TikTok failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy, according to two people interviewed by the agencies.

The development is the latest bump in the road for the short video company, which is popular with teens. TikTok has seen scrutiny, including from the national security-focused Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, rise sharply because of its Chinese parent corporation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

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A staffer in a Massachusetts tech policy group and another source said they took part in separate conference calls with FTC and Justice Department officials to discuss accusations that TikTok had failed to live up to an agreement announced in February 2019.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and others in May asked the FTC look into their allegations TikTok failed to delete videos and personal information about users age 13 and younger as it had agreed to do, among other violations.

A TikTok spokesman said they take “safety seriously for all our users,” adding that in the United States they “accommodate users under 13 in a limited app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for a younger audience.”

Officials from both the FTC, which reached the original consent agreement with TikTok and Justice Department, which often files court documents for the FTC, met via video with representatives of the groups to discuss the matter, said David Monahan, a campaign manager with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“I got the sense from our conversation that they are looking into the assertions that we raised in our complaint,” Monahan said.

A second person, speaking privately, confirmed that advocates had met with officials from the two agencies to discuss concerns TikTok violated the consent decree.

The FTC declined to comment. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.

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TikTok has grown increasingly popular among US teenagers and allows users to create short videos. About 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are aged 16 to 24, the company said last year.

US lawmakers have also raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies to support and cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok, owned by parent company ByteDance, is one of several China-based firms that have had to navigate heightened US-China tensions over trade, technology, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under intense US regulatory scrutiny, it has poached Disney’s Kevin Mayer to be its chief executive and is trying to project a more global image, with offices in California, Singapore, and elsewhere.

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