Fri, 17 Jul 2020

Fourteen Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee are requesting that Federal Trade Commission regulators investigate the popular video app TikTok for violations of children's privacy.

The Energy and Commerce Committee conducts oversight on the FTC's privacy unit. The lawsuit filed Thursday follows claims submitted by the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and others that TikTok failed to remove videos posted by children under the age of 13, which it had previously agreed to do in a 2019 agreement with the FTC.

The FTC fined TikTok $5.7 million in February 2019 over lax enforcement of measures designed to ensure children's privacy.

In addition to removing videos of underage children, the FTC also required the company to comply with all aspects of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the future.

The 2019 case alleged that TikTok neglected to implement blocks against the collection of tweens' personal data and did not permit parents to request that their child's data be deleted - if the parents were even aware that personal data was being collected in the first place.

After the FTC ruling, TikTok introduced an under-13 section of the app that does not permit the dissemination of personal information. Last month, the Family Pairing feature was announced, which provides parents with a way to implement restrictions on all teenage accounts, not just those under 13.

The Democratic lawmakers say that failure to comply with the FTC's mandate violates COPPA.

"The blatant disregard for the consent decree could encourage other websites to fail to adhere to settlements made with your agency, thereby weakening protections for all Americans," the letter to the FTC said.

The Chinese-owned app has been downloaded 1.9 billion times internationally, including 172 million times in the United States, The New York Times reported. Its popularity has soared since the onset the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide shelter-in-place orders, achieving record first-quarter growth.

Suspicions over data collection

The U.S. government has previously expressed doubts regarding the trustworthiness of the app, citing its Chinese origins. Several branches of the U.S. military, for example, have prohibited personnel from creating an account, and at least one senator has proposed legislation to ban use for federal employees.

The lawmakers' letter to the FTC comes after two Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee wrote a letter to the CEO of TikTok's parent company, ByteDance.

Representatives Greg Walden and Cathy McMorris Rodgers requested that the company disclose its data-collection practices for Americans and how that data is shared with the Chinese Communist Party or other Chinese state entities.

According to The Hill, TikTok has previously stated it stores American user data in Singapore and denies that it shares information with the Chinese government.

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