US reportedly investigating TikTok again over children’s privacy

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TikTok is reportedly again the subject of a children’s privacy probe by federal agencies.


Angela Lang/CNET

The US Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department are probing allegations that TikTok has failed to meet its obligation to protect children’s privacy under a 2019 agreement, Reuters reported Tuesday. Two sources told the news agency they participated in separate conference calls with the agencies regarding the accusations.

TikTok is a wildly popular social media app where people, mostly teens and young adults, post videos of up to 15 seconds, often synced with music. The app surged in popularity in the first quarter of the year, logging more than 2 billion downloads from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, analytics firm Sensor Tower reported in April.

In May, the Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and more than a dozen other organizations asked the FTC to look into allegations that the app’s operators violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by failing to delete personal information about users under the age 13 as it had agreed to do.

In 2019, the app’s operators agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle FTC charges that it violated COPPA by failing to obtain parental consent before collecting personal info on kids under the age of 13. TikTok also failed to delete that personal information when it received complaints from parents and their children, according to the FTC.

A TikTok spokeswoman said the company takes “safety seriously for all our users” and continues to “introduce new measures to protect young people on the app.”

The app, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. US lawmakers have accused it of being a threat to national security, and the US Army and Navy have banned the app from government devices.

In an interview with Fox News on Monday night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is aware of TikTok and is considering a ban on the app.

“We’re certainly looking at it,” Pompeo said in response to an interviewer’s question. “We’ve worked on this very issue for a long time,” he added, citing the administration’s prohibitions against embattled Chinese telecom-gear maker Huawei.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump told Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren that a ban is “something we’re looking at, yes,” as previously reported by Bloomberg. The ban is being considered as a way to retaliate against China over the country’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked,” a TikTok spokesperson said via email.

The FTC declined to comment, and the Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

CNET’s Sean Keane contributed to this report.

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