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TikTok Faces New Lawsuit Over Children’s Data In National Security Fight

TikTok Faces New Lawsuit Over Children’s Data In National Security Fight

TikTok may be facing a new lawsuit over alleged violations of a federal law intended to protect children’s privacy online as it fights a First Amendment legal battle against the U.S. government challenging a national ban on the social media platform.

The Federal Trade Commission, in a statement issued on Tuesday, said that an investigation “uncovered reason to believe” TikTok and Chinese parent company ByteDance are “violating or are about to violate” the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the central federal law protecting youngsters on the internet that restricts tracking by online services such as social media apps, video game platforms and digital advertising networks. It recommended for the Justice Department to take legal action and lawmakers to call a congressional hearing.

The FTC typically doesn’t publicize referrals of complaints, but the commission said that it “determined that doing so here is in the public interest.” The announcement comes amid a high-profile legal battle between the government and TikTok forcing ByteDance to sell the social media platform or face a national ban. Among the central concerns that lawmakers have advanced include the possibility that TikTok has provided user data to the Chinese government or that it’s been directed to influence the content users see on the platform, though no such evidence has been presented thus far.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said it’s “disappointed the agency is pursuing litigation instead of continuing to work with us on a reasonable solution.” It added, “We strongly disagree with the FTC’s allegations, many of which relate to past events and practices that are factually inaccurate or have been addressed.”

The probe that unearthed potential violations of COPPA, which requires that websites and online services directed at children obtain parental consent before collecting data from children, stems from Musical.ly’s $5.7 million settlement in 2019 — at the time, the largest civil penalty obtained by the commission in such a case — with the FTC. ByteDance merged TikTok with Musical.ly in 2017 in a deal that’s still under review by The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment.

The potential filing of a complaint by the Justice Department and convening of a congressional hearing stems from national security concerns posed by the app. In May, members of the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party called for a federal inquiry into whether TikTok violated COPPA and other laws by pushing a “message containing verifiably false information” in advertisements intended to kill legislation forcing ByteDance to sell the company or face a national ban. The committee stressed that the law allows for the platform’s continued operation in the country as long as it’s not owned by a company the bill labels a “foreign adversary,” which includes China.

In a letter to FTC chair Lina Kahn, the lawmakers wrote, “TikTok has previously violated children’s data privacy laws. We are gravely concerned that an app controlled by the Chinese Communist Party appears to have the unfettered ability to manipulate the American public, including America’s children.”

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They added, “Notably, there is public reporting that TikTok’s campaign impacted ‘young children in classrooms’ and others who appeared to be under the age of 13. The solicitation of children using deceptive and inflammatory information resulted in at least one instance of threatened self-harm, with a Congressional office reporting a call from a child threatening suicide in response to TikTok’s false message that the app would be ‘ban[ned].’”

The TikTok spokesperson said, “We’re proud of and remain deeply committed to the work we’ve done to protect children and we will continue to update and improve our product. We offer an age-appropriate experience with stringent safeguards, proactively remove suspected underage users, and have voluntarily launched safety features such as default screentime limits, family pairing, and privacy by default for minors under 16.”

TikTok last year was fined over $368 million by European regulators for failing to properly protect children’s personal data. The Data Protection Commission found that the app encouraged users to adopt privacy-intrusive options. It also questioned default profile settings for child users being set to public.

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