Clock ticking on TikTok as EU probes data compliance

tiktok nSocial media platform TikTok – recently dubbed “a marketer’s dream” – is under increasing pressure over its data protection record following the launch of an EU-wide task force to co-ordinate action against the Chinese tech giant.

With an estimated 800 million global active users, primarily aged between 13 and 30, the video sharing app has seen a huge spike in popularity since the coronavirus lockdown.

Market intelligence provider Sensor Tower estimates that the app was the second-most installed application in April worldwide, with more than 107 million downloads. UK users top 24 million, equivalent of one in three Brits.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many in the advertising industry have hailed the platform as “the future”, with the likes of Nike, Calvin Klein, Pepsi, Skittles, Disney and Universal Pictures among the biggest spenders. TikTok launched its first UK ad campaign (pictured) last month.

However, complaints about its privacy record refuse to die down, prompting the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to set up a task force to co-ordinate potential actions against parent company Bytedance and to acquire a more comprehensive overview of TikTok’s data processing and practices across the EU.

Confirming the move, the EDPD said: “This matter will be considered with the greatest attention, in particular when it comes to processing of minors’ personal data.”

Last year the company was forced to pay $5.7m in a settlement in the US over allegations it “illegally collected images, voice recordings, and geolocation” of children, some younger than 13.

The amount, part of an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, remains the largest civil penalty ever issued by the agency in a child privacy case.

Soon after, UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told a parliamentary committee that her office was also investigating the company, prompted by the FTC action.

At the time, Denham said: “We are looking at the transparency tools for children. We’re looking at the messaging system, which is completely open, we’re looking at the kind of videos that are collected and shared by children online. We do have an active investigation into TikTok right now, so watch this space.” The company has since banned direct messaging for under-16s, although it is all quiet on the western front for the ICO’s investigation.

However, in April this year, the Dutch data protection authority – Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens – also launched an investigation into whether TikTok adequately protects the privacy of children under Dutch law and GDPR.

Dutch DPA deputy chair Monique Verdier said: “We will investigate whether the app has a privacy-friendly design. We’ll also check whether the information TikTok provides when children install and use the app is easy to understand and adequately explains how their personal data is collected, processed, and used.”

And, last month, a coalition of children’s and consumer groups accused the app of failing to abide by its agreement with the FTC to protect children’s privacy.

Of course, TikTok says it is “committed to protecting the privacy of children” and only collects limited information from younger users, such as username, password, and birthday. It added: “We take privacy seriously and are committed to helping ensure that TikTok continues to be a safe and entertaining community for our users.”

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