The video app TikTok has been fined 345 million euros for violating the privacy of children in the EU and must make changes within three months. The Irish privacy watchdog announced this on behalf of all supervisors in the EU. The fine will be imposed for violations during five months in 2020.
For years, a lot of attention has been paid to the way TikTok deals with its young target group. The app is very popular among young teenagers and also among children under the age of thirteen, who are not officially allowed to use it.
‘Very serious violation’
Aleid Wolfsen, chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority, speaks of a very serious violation. “The app is used by many children and this affects many children. The settings were not correct and children were therefore tempted to engage in privacy-unfriendly activities in an unclear manner.” The investigation started with the Dutch regulator, but it had to transfer it because TikTok established its European headquarters in Ireland.
TikTok disagrees with the decision, stating that the criticism concerns features that “we changed long before the investigation even began.” The company is considering next steps. TikTok can easily pay the fine: the parent company’s global turnover last year was almost 80 billion euros, according to the Financial Times.
Essentially, it concerns three cases in which the accounts of children between the ages of 13 and 17 were insufficiently protected according to the Irish supervisor. The first violation was that TikTok guided children through the registration process in such a way that the account was public by default and therefore the videos were visible to everyone, not just friends.
TikTok announced at the beginning of 2021, immediately after the violation period described by the watchdog, that from then on it would set the accounts of 13 to 15-year-olds to private by default. Apparently under pressure from privacy regulators, the platform is now going one step further. In a blog post, the company reports that later this month, new accounts of 16 and 17 year olds will be set to private by default during the registration process.
Let parents watch
The second violation has to do with a feature called Family Pairing. This makes it possible for parents to link their own account to that of their child. It should give parents more control over what their children do on the platform and the time they spend there.
According to the regulator, TikTok did not verify whether the user linked to a child as a ‘parent’ was actually a parent of the child. The company is saying nothing about this today.
Family Pairing was announced by TikTok in April 2020. Anyone who is considered a parent is given all kinds of rights. Consider setting the amount of time a teenager can spend on the platform, filtering certain words or hashtags and determining whether the account is public or private and whether private messages can be sent.
TikTok today emphasizes that children under 16 cannot send private messages since 2020. Since November of that year, accounts belonging to 16 and 17 year olds have not been able to enable private messages if the user has already turned them off.
The latest violation is that the information given to children about their account settings was not clear enough. As a result, children did not know what the consequences were if their videos were set to public by default. The platform promises improvements in this area.
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