Video-focused social media platform TikTok has been fined €345m by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) over the privacy of child users.
The Processing of Personal Data
The fine, as well as a reprimand (and an order requiring them to bring its data processing into compliance within three months) were issued in relation to how the company processed personal data relating to child users in terms of:
– Some of the TikTok platform settings, such as public-by-default settings as well as the settings associated with the ‘Family Pairing’ feature.
– Age verification in the registration process.
During its investigation into TikTok, The DPC also looked at transparency information for children. The DPC’s investigation focused on the period from 31 July 2020 and 31 December 2020.
Explained in basic terms, TikTok was fined because (according to the DPC’s findings) :
– The profile settings for child users accounts being set to public-by-default meant that anyone (on or off TikTok) could view the content posted by the child user. The DPC said this also posed risks to children under 13 who had gained access TikTok.
– The ‘Family Pairing’ setting allowed a non-child user (who couldn’t be verified as the parent or guardian) to pair their account to the child user’s account. The DPC says this enabled non-child users to enable Direct Messages for child users over 16, thereby posing a risk to child users.
– Child users hadn’t been provided with sufficient information transparency.
– The DPC said that TikTok had implemented “dark patterns” by “nudging users towards choosing more privacy-intrusive options during the registration process, and when posting videos.”
TikTok has been reported as saying that it disagrees with the findings and the level of the fine. TikTok also said: “The criticisms are focused on features and settings that were in place three years ago, and that we made changes to well before the investigation even began, such as setting all under 16 accounts to private by default”.
This isn’t the first fine for TikTok in relation to this subject. For example, in July 2020, the company was fined $5.7 million by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for collecting data from minors without parental consent. Also, in April this year, TikTok was fined £12.7m by the ICO for allowing children under 13 to use the platform (in 2020).
The level of TikTok’s most recent fine, however, is not as much as the £1bn fine issued to Meta in May for mishandling people’s data in transfer between Europe and the US.
Banned In Many Countries
In addition to fines in the some of the countries where the TikTok app is allowed, for a mixture of reasons including worries about data privacy for young users, possible links to the Chinese state, incompatibility with some religious laws and some political situation(s) have resulted in TikTok being banned in Somalia, Norway, New Zealand, The Netherlands, India, Denmark, Canada, Belgium, Australia, and Afghanistan.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Back in 2020, TikTok was experiencing massive growth as the most downloaded app in the world. It was also the year when former U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order aiming to ban TikTok in the United States, plus the year when the platform picked up its first big fine ($5.7 million) from the FTC (in the US) over collecting data from minors without parental consent.
As pointed out by TikTok, this latest, much larger European fine dates back to issues from around the same time, which TikTok argues it had already addressed before the DPC’s investigation began. This story highlights how important it is to create a safe environment in this digital society for children and young people who are frequent users of the web and particularly social media platforms. This story also highlights how important it is for businesses to pay particular attention to data regulations relating to children and young users and to review systems and processes with this mind to ensure maximum efforts are made maintain privacy and safety.
Furthermore, it is also an example of the importance of having regulators with ‘teeth’ that can impose substantial fines and generate bad publicity for non-compliance which can help provide the motivation for the big tech companies to take privacy matters more seriously. TikTok’s worries, however, aren’t just related to data privacy issues. Ongoing frosty political relations between China and the west mean that its relationship with the Chinese government is still in question and this, together with the bans of the app in many countries means it remains under scrutiny, perhaps more than other (US based) social media platforms.