Less than a year after the video-sharing app Musical.ly -- which turned into TikTok in August 2018 -- reached a $5.7 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over alleged violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a new class-action lawsuit filed against the company suggests that settlement didn't go far enough.
"Defendants have not made whole the millions of consumers harmed by their unlawful conduct," the complaint reads. "Accordingly, Plaintiffs bring this class action for relief.”
Filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Illinois by plaintiffs T.K. (through her mother Sherri Leshore) and A.S. (through her mother Laura Lopez), the new complaint alleges that the Musical.ly app “surreptitiously tracked, collected, and disclosed” the personal information of minor children without their parents’ or guardians’ consent, selling their data to third-party advertisers while also opening them up to attacks by child sexual predators. The plaintiffs -- who estimate the size of the class affected by Musical.ly’s alleged actions at six million U.S. users -- are asking for actual, statutory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Musical.ly (which was purchased by TikTok's parent company ByteDance for $1 billion in December 2017) failed to put appropriate safeguards in place to protect users under age 13, including failure to obtain parental consent before sharing minor children’s personal information and making that information publicly available by default to other users on the app. They further allege that between December 2015 and October 2016, the app collected geolocation data, thereby enabling users to identify the location of other users, including children.
“Because the App had virtually all privacy features disabled by default, there were serious ramifications, including reports of adults trying to contact minor children via the App,” the complaint reads.
Defendants named in the suit include ByteDance Technology, Musical.ly Inc., Musical.ly The Cayman Islands Corporation and TikTok Inc.
When reached for comment, a TikTok spokesperson sent Billboard the following statement:
"TikTok is firmly committed to safeguarding the data of its users, especially our younger users. We were made aware of the allegations in the complaint some time ago and, although we disagree with much of what is alleged in the complaint, we have been working with the parties involved and are pleased to have come to a resolution of the issues.”
The complaint notes that while defendants began advising parents to monitor their children’s use of the app in October 2016, this guidance was “limited” and “mere ‘window dressing.’” It further alleges the company knew all along that young children were using the app, noting that a total of 46 of Musical.ly's most popular users were under the age 13 as of February 2017. Moreover, they accuse the company of actually encouraging young children to sign up by, among other things, creating song folders labeled “Disney” and “school," leveraging entertainers popular with preteens and teens to promote the app and offering tools that made it easy for children to create and upload videos. (Under terms of the FTC settlement, TikTok was forced to remove all videos by users under the age of 13.)
“For the reasons discussed herein, Defendants had actual knowledge they were collecting personally identifiable information and/or viewing data from children,” the complaint continues. “The youth of the user base is easily apparent in perusing users’ profile pictures and in reviewing users’ profiles, many of which explicitly noted the child’s age, birthdate, or school.”
The complaint includes a total of five counts, including violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act; Intrusion Upon Seclusion; violation of the California Constitutional Right to Privacy; violation of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act; and violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.
Tuesday’s suit only adds to the current legal and regulatory headaches for TikTok, which is already under investigation by the U.K. Commissioner’s Office over its use of children’s data. In October, the National Music Publishers Assocation called on Congress to investigate the app over potential copyright theft, while last month reports indicated the company had become the subject of a national security review in the U.S. over concerns of censorship and counterintelligence by the Chinese government, where its parent company ByteDance is based.