The video app TikTok has received a fine of €345 million for violating the privacy of children in the EU and is required to make adjustments within three months. This was announced by the Irish privacy watchdog on behalf of all EU regulators. The fine is imposed for violations during a period of five months in 2020.
There has been significant attention for years regarding how TikTok handles its young audience. The app is highly popular among young teenagers and even among children under thirteen, who are officially not supposed to use it.
Aleid Wolfsen, chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority, describes it as a very serious violation. “The app is used by a lot of children, so this affects a large number of children. The settings were not correct, and as a result, children were enticed to engage in privacy-unfriendly activities in an unclear manner.” The investigation began with the Dutch regulator but had to be transferred because TikTok established its European headquarters in Ireland.
TikTok disagrees with the decision and claims that the criticism relates to features that “we adjusted long before the investigation began.” The company is considering further steps. The fine is easily affordable for TikTok: according to the Financial Times, the parent company’s global revenue was nearly €80 billion last year.
In a joint statement, the committee of privacy watchdogs in the EU has instructed TikTok to make design changes in the app. This specifically concerns two popup notifications that users between the ages of 13 and 17 see during registration and when posting a video. In both cases, children are encouraged to make their accounts and videos public, according to the committee.
“Social media platforms have a responsibility to prevent offering users, especially children, choices that ultimately harm their own privacy interests,” says committee chairman Anu Talus. Regulators also express “serious doubts” about the effectiveness of age verification, which is supposed to prevent children under 13 from being active on TikTok.
Essentially, the core issue revolves around three matters in which accounts of children aged 13 to 17, according to the Irish regulator, were insufficiently protected. The first violation was that TikTok guided children through the registration process in such a way that their accounts were automatically set to public, making their videos visible to everyone, not just friends.
TikTok announced in early 2021, immediately after the violation period described by the watchdog, that it would default the accounts of 13 to 15-year-olds to private. Ostensibly under pressure from privacy regulators, the platform is now going a step further. In a blog post, the company announces that later this month, new accounts of 16- and 17-year-olds will be automatically set to private during the registration process.
The second violation relates to a feature called Family Pairing. This allows parents to link their own accounts to those of their children. It should give parents more control over what their children do on the platform and how much time they spend there.
According to the regulator, TikTok did not verify whether the user linked as a ‘parent’ to a child was actually the child’s parent. The company has not commented on this issue today.
Family Pairing was announced by TikTok in April 2020. Users designated as parents receive various rights, such as setting the amount of time a teenager can spend on the platform, filtering certain words or hashtags, determining whether the account is public or private, and whether private messages can be sent.
TikTok emphasizes today that children under 16 have not been able to send private messages since 2020. For 16- and 17-year-old accounts, it has not been possible to enable private messages since November of that year if the user has already turned them off.
The last violation is that the information provided to children about their account settings was not clear enough. As a result, children did not understand the consequences of their videos being set to public by default. The platform promises improvements in this regard.