FTC Exacts Record Fine for Kids Privacy Violation

The video social networking app TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) has agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission allegation that it had illegally collected personal info from kids, according to the FTC.

It was the largest civil penalty ever levied over an alleged children's privacy violation. TikTok said Wednesday (Feb. 27) it has already taken steps to give kids a safer app experience, saying it understood the FTC's concerns.

The FTC had alleged that TikTok violated COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which requires child-directed sites to get parental consent before collecting any personal info from kids 13 and younger.

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“The operators of Musical.ly—now known as TikTok—knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons following the announcement of the settlement. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.”

In addition to paying the fine, the operators of the former TikTok must comply with COPPA going forward (which they arguably would have to do whether or not it was part of the settlement) and to de-post any videos made by kids 13 and under.

The vote was 5-0 and the settlement was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The court will have to sign off on the agreement, but that is basically a pro forma affirmation.

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The announced fine came the same day the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on protecting privacy, where Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), author of COPPA, called on the Senate to include special protections for children's online privacy in any national data protection framework currently under serious consideration. The FTC also was a hot topic of discussion, including urging more muscular oversight of privacy, muscles the FTC was flexing Wednesday (Feb. 27).

Markey said of the fine: "This FTC ruling underscores what we have long known: Companies do not consider children’s personal information out of bounds. But the clock is ticking on companies that don’t follow the law and protect the privacy of children.

TikTok knowingly collected children’s data in order to reap profits with blatant disregard for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Kids’ lives are increasingly lived online, and companies like TikTok have been all too eager to take advantage of child app users at every turn."

“While this fine may be an historic high for a COPPA violation, it is not high enough for the harm that is done to children and to deter violations of the law in the future by other companies. I urge the FTC to make COPPA enforcement a top priority and protect the privacy of a uniquely vulnerable class of Americans, our children. That means making companies pay higher monetary penalties that will actually incentive COPPA compliance.”

"Today, the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement agreement related to musical.ly, Inc.," said TikTok in a statement. "It’s our priority to create a safe and welcoming experience for all of our users, and as we developed the global TikTok platform, we’ve been committed to creating measures to further protect our user community – including tools for parents to protect their teens and for users to enable additional privacy settings. While we’ve always seen TikTok as a place for everyone, we understand the concerns that arise around younger users. In working with the FTC and in conjunction with today’s agreement, we’ve now implemented changes to accommodate younger U.S. users in a limited, separate app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience."We have always worked to provide our users with the best possible platform to foster their creativity. Beginning today, this additional app experience now allows us to split users into age-appropriate TikTok environments, in line with FTC guidance for mixed audience apps. The new environment for younger users does not permit the sharing of personal information, and it puts extensive limitations on content and user interaction. Both current and new TikTok users will be directed to the age-appropriate app experience, beginning today."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.