A coalition of consumer groups filed a complaint Thursday with US regulators claiming the popular video app TikTok has failed to live up to an agreement last year limiting data collection from children.
The 20 organizations said in a Federal Trade Commission complaint that TikTok continues to collect data on children under 13 without parental consent despite a February 2019 US court settlement.
The complaint called for the FTC to reopen its investigation, saying the matter is urgent now as more children flock to social media apps during the coronavirus lockdowns.
According to the complaint, TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, makes it easy for under-13 users to avoid obtaining parental consent and makes no attempt to notify parents.
As a result, TikTok is able to collect detailed information about how these children use the app and applies artificial intelligence to determine what to show next, to keep them engaged online as long as possible.
“Even after being caught red-handed by the FTC, TikTok continues to flout the law,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the groups in the complaint.
“We urge the Commission to take swift action and sanction TikTok again — this time with a fine and injunctive relief commensurate with the seriousness of TikTok’s serial violations.”
TikTok last year paid a $5.7 million penalty under a court settlement and agreed to implement policy changes including deleting any information collected from children under 13.
But the complaint said that TikTok destroyed “only the personal information of users who identified as under 13 at the time of the decree or at the time their personal information was collected,” which allowed it to keep some of this data.
“We easily found that many accounts featuring children were still present on TikTok,” said Michael Rosenbloom of the Georgetown University Institute for Public Representation, which represents the groups.
“Many of these accounts have tens of thousands to millions of followers, and have been around since before the order.”
Asked about the latest complaint, TikTok said it had implemented detailed policies on accounts for young children.
“We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users,” it said in a statement.
The tracking firm Sensor Tower reported last month that TikTok had topped two billion downloads amid strong growth during the virus pandemic.
Research firm eMarketer estimated that TikTok had more than 52 million US users in March.