TikTok, the widely used social network dedicated to short-form videos, has been fined GBP 12.7 million (USD 15.85 million) for allowing children under the age of 13 to access its platform and for illegally processing their data. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of the United Kingdom has slapped the fine on TikTok for letting 1.4 million under-13 children access the app without parental consent, as required by law.
The Guardian newspaper yesterday quoted UK Information Commissioner John Edwards, who stated that TikTok was not doing enough to prevent children under 13 from accessing its platform; nor did it do enough to block underage users when it became aware of the issue. He added that he had been given assurances that the social media platform was now doing more.
Just weeks before this, the TikTok app was banned from all phones and similar devices, such as tablets, used by UK ministers for fear of data breach. Aside from the punitive measures in the UK, the social network has faced action in other countries, too.
The United States federal government has threatened to ban TikTok unless the app’s Chinese investors sell off their stake in the platform, as per a CNN report in March 2023. The Biden administration in the US earlier banned the app from government-issued devices used by staff at the White House, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
The Government of India banned TikTok in the first half of 2020, describing it as a security threat, though the platform retains all the years of data uploaded by Indian users. India banned quite a few other Chinese apps alongside TikTok, calling them “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.
According to media reports published yesterday, Australia, too, banned TikTok from devices issued to government employees. Objecting to the perception that TikTok could cause a security breach, the company’s general manager for Australia, Lee Hunter, said in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed by this decision, which, in our view, is driven by politics, not by fact.”
For European Parliament employees’ official devices, the TikTok ban came into effect in March 2023. The European Commission and the EU Council have a similar ban in place.
Threat to under-13s
The UK government is not the first to fine TikTok for exploiting the personal data of under-13s. In February 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of the US slapped a record penalty of USD 5.7 million for exactly the same reason: the platform’s inefficiency or unwillingness to keep under-13 users out, or at least, to let them register only with parental consent.
In a media statement, FTC Chairman Joe Simons said, “The operators of Musical.ly — now known as TikTok — knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13. This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children.”
In the UK, Information Commissioner Edwards said that TikTok needed to do a lot more to filter out under-13s trying to register themselves on the app. All that the app had was a self-certification that the applicant was over 13, and this could be done just by clicking a box with no verification, no extra checks, he pointed out.
The commissioner said that the personal data of under-13 users gathered by TikTok could put the young people at risk, as the information could be used to “track them and profile them”, and they could be exposed to “harmful, inappropriate content” as a result.
In response, a TikTok spokesperson said, “TikTok is a platform for users aged 13 and over. We invest heavily to help keep under-13s off the platform and our 40,000-strong safety team works around the clock to help keep the platform safe for our community.
“While we disagree with the ICO’s decision, which relates to May 2018 to July 2020, we are pleased that the fine announced today has been reduced to under half the amount proposed last year. We will continue to review the decision and are considering next steps.”