The hugely popular lip-syncing mobile app, TikTok, is paying a record settlement. Reason: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has alleged that the company violated privacy laws meant to protect children.
In the largest ever settlement related to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), TikTok had agreed to pay $5.7 million.
The FTC said TikTok did not get parental consent before mining information on children below the age of 13.
What is the FTC and COPPA?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an American federal agency that protects consumers in the economy.
It was established in 1914, initially to prevent “unfair methods of competition in commerce”. Over the years, its scope has expanded.
This body can enforce consumer protection laws, share legal advice with lawmakers and international agencies, and educates consumers about policies.
One of FTC’s focuses is COPPA. This Act imposes certain restrictions on websites and online platforms that allow child users under the age of 13.
It “prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in connection with the collection, use, and/or disclosure of personal information from and about children on the Internet”.
This means that in the absence of parental consent, websites cannot ask children for personal information; they also cannot allow them to make that information public on their platforms.
These online platforms also cannot engage in “passive tracking”, ie collect information from the digital footprint left behind.
These websites are obligated to obtain “verifiable consent” from a parent or legal guardian; that means they have to make a reasonable effort to get consent from an adult.
What did TikTok do?
TikTok, previously known as Musical.ly, required its users to provide a full name, phone number, email address, and username. People also have to provide a short biography and profile picture.
Those requirements violated COPPA because they ask for that information from children, as well.
Moreover, Buzzfeed reports that the app has a “my city” feature that provides a user with a list of other users within a 50-mile (80 km) radius. This puts children further at risk because it discloses details about their location.
TikTok’s new ecosystem
The company said creating a safe and welcoming experience for its users was a priority. It also conceded that the FTC made valid points in its allegations.
“While we’ve always seen TikTok as a place for everyone, we understand the concerns that arise around younger users,” said the company in a statement.
TikTok added, “We’ve now implemented changes to accommodate younger US users in a limited, separate app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience.”
Although the company did not specify what these changes are, it said TikTok will provide a “younger ecosystem” for its child users.
In this section of the app, the company won’t allow children in the US to share personal information anymore. The app also said it will put “extensive limitations on content and user interaction”.
“Both current and new TikTok users will be directed to the age-appropriate app experience, beginning today,” said the statement
TikTok does not clearly specify in the statement what these changes will look like. On Twitter, however, the company said it required people aged 13 or older to submit a government-issued ID as proof of their age.
Users have tweeted at TikTok, complaining about losing their videos or being locked out of their accounts.
TikTok’s many problems (even in India)
This isn’t the first time TikTok has found itself at the centre of a controversy.
NDTV reported that parents were concerned about their children, especially daughters, being vulnerable to online predators. Moreover, parents complained that people all over the world were posting videos of songs with lyrics that degrade women.
TikTok merely has a storehouse of sound bytes from films, shows, and songs. So, the issue with lyrics is one for the music industry at large. However, one can make a case for TikTok disallowing any degrading or problematic lyrics from its platform.
People are also concerned about the lack of filter on user comments that can be disturbing and upsetting for other users.
Indonesia banned TikTok after 170,000 people signed a petition against the app for allowing children to post videos while wearing “revealing outfits”.
Quartz India reports that Tamil Nadu has suggested banning TikTok for its sexually charged content.
Of all TikTok users, 40% reside in India. However, the FTC regulations do not apply to Indian citizens, so the app need not make any privacy adjustments for its South Asian user base.
Currently, Indian cyber laws do not explicitly regulate children’s privacy online.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius
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