TikTok in the dock again as privacy complaints mount

TikTokMarketers might have fallen head over heels for TikTok but it seems privacy groups continue to balk at the short video sharing platform’s data protection record, with pan-European consumer body BEUC the latest to join the fray.

The 44 member organisation, whose UK partners include Which? and Citizens Advice, has filed a complaint to the European Commission following a major investigation which it claims has exposed breaches of consumer rights on a “massive scale”.

The main thrust of its complaint is that TikTok’s terms of service are “unclear, ambiguous and favour TikTok to the detriment of its users”, and the platform’s copyright gives TikTok the right to use, distribute and reproduce users’ videos without remuneration.

BEUC has also complained about TikTok’s data collection practices, which it claims are unclear and potentially in breach of the GDPR, while it is also concerned that users can buy virtual coins to give virtual gifts for other content creators on the platform but TikTok has the absolute right to change the exchange rate between coins and gifts.

BEUC director general Monique Goyens said: “In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe. But TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale. We have discovered a whole series of consumer rights infringements and therefore filed a complaint.”

In response, TikTok said it has contacted BEUC to set up a meeting. A spokesperson added: “Keeping our community safe, especially our younger users, and complying with the laws where we operate are responsibilities we take incredibly seriously. Every day we work hard to protect our community which is why we have taken a range of major steps, including making all accounts belonging to users under 16 private by default.

“We’ve also developed an in-app summary of our privacy policy with vocabulary and a tone of voice that makes it easier for teens to understand our approach to privacy.”

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; it has also recently revealed plans to boost its ecommerce operation.

However, complaints about its privacy record refuse to die down.

In 2019, 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.

Last summer, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) 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.

Meanwhile, both the UK Information Commissioner’s Office and its Dutch counterpart – Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens – are investigating the platform, and a coalition of children’s and consumer groups in the US have accused the app of failing to abide by its agreement with the FTC to protect children’s privacy.

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