Press Releases

Kuster, Schakowsky Lead Letter Calling on FTC to Investigate TikTok’s Failure to Protect Children’s Privacy

**Fourteen House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats signed the letter to the Federal Trade Commission**

Washington, DC, May 28, 2020

Today, Representatives Annie Kuster (NH-02) and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09) led a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) signed by 14 Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce Committee requesting the agency investigate TikTok’s apparent violations of a federal law that protects children’s privacy. TikTok’s violations were outlined in a complaint filed by a group of 20 non-profit organizations that uncovered TikTok’s misconduct.

“I am deeply concerned that TikTok has failed to protect the privacy of our nation’s children,” said Rep. Kuster. “At a time when kids are spending more time online as most schools have transitioned to remote learning, parents should not have to worry that a foreign-owned company is inappropriately collecting their children’s data. TikTok’s actions not only put the privacy of young Americans in jeopardy but also cause a potentially dangerous situation by limiting parents’ ability to monitor what their children are doing online. The Federal Trade Commission must investigate the serious allegations and take appropriate enforcement action against TikTok.”

“With Americans spending more time at home and on the internet, the FTC’s role enforcing children’s privacy online has never been more important,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “Therefore, it’s imperative the agency complete its investigation into TikTok’s compliance with the consent decree and COPPA.  If TikTok has violated either, the FTC should swiftly impose meaningful penalties. The TikTok allegations are just one more in a growing list that demonstrates the absurdity of industry’s request for the FTC to rollback current COPPA protections.”

TikTok is one of the most popular applications in the world and is widely used by children and teenagers in the United States. As outlined in the complaint, TikTok appears to have failed to fulfill its obligations under the consent decree to destroy all personal information on users younger than 13; post a prominent and clearly labeled privacy policy; inform parents of the data it is collecting on children and how it is used; obtain parental consent before collecting such data; and grant parents the right to delete this information on their children. The inability to meet these terms put TikTok in continued violation of COPPA, which prohibits websites from collecting personally identifiable information on children under the age of 13 without verifiable parental consent and requires the prominent placement and parental notification of privacy policies on web platforms. 

The letter was signed by Representatives Ann McLane Kuster (NH-02), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Bobby L. Rush (IL-01), Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Diana DeGette (CO-01), Doris Matsui (CA-06), Kathy Castor (FL-14), Jerry McNerney (CA-09), Peter Welch (VT-At-large), Yvette D. Clarke (NY-09), Scott H. Peters (CA-52), Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), and Lisa Blunt Rochester (DE-At-large).

Full text of the letter is available here and below.

Joseph J. Simons

Chairman

Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20580

Dear Chairman Simons:

We write in support of the May 14 letter complaint submitted by Children’s Privacy Coalition for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate TikTok’s compliance with consent decree reached in United States v. Musical.ly (consent decree) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). As Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which regularly conducts oversight of online privacy issues and has jurisdiction over your agency, we encourage you to seriously consider this request. 

Over the past two months, social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus has led to many Americans spending more time online. Recent studies estimate that internet usage has increased between 50-70% during the crisis, and with 55 million K-12 students learning remotely, many of these users are children.[1] TikTok has seen a surge in use, with downloads increasing 27% in the first 23 days of March alone, and the app surpassing two billion downloads at the end of April.[2] Parents are spread thin adjusting to working from home or searching for employment, helping their children with schoolwork, and managing the stress that comes with living through a global pandemic. As children are spending more time online, busy parents deserve the reassurance that the federal government is diligently working to protect the online safety of their family members. 

As outlined by the Children’s Privacy Coalition complaint, TikTok appears to have failed to fulfill its obligations under the consent decree to destroy all personal information on users younger than 13, post a prominent and clearly labeled privacy policy, inform parents of the data they are collecting on children and how it is used, obtain parental consent before collecting such data, and provide parents with the right to delete this information on their children.[3] Given the resources TikTok has at its disposal, this failure to adhere to the consent decree may be an intentional effort to ignore the enforcement authority Congress bestowed upon your agency.[4] 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 online. 

TikTok’s apparent failure to uphold to the consent decree also places it in continued violation of COPPA, which prohibits websites from collecting personal identifiable information on children under the age of 13 without verifiable parental consent, and requires the prominent placement and parental notification of privacy policies on web platforms.[5] While TikTok limits what users under the age of 13 who choose to use “younger user accounts” can see and do on their platform, there is no mechanism for the application to notify parents of privacy policies or obtain their consent for the personal information it collects from those users.[6] Failing to adhere to COPPA in a system designed for children younger than 13 further demonstrates TikTok’s apathy towards U.S. law. 

The failure to comply with the consent decree and COPPA not only jeopardizes children's privacy, but also threatens their safety because uninformed parents are less equipped to monitor what their children are doing online. Without parental oversight, TikTok’s limited services for users under the age of 13 are easy for children to subvert. There is no apparent mechanism in place to prevent users under 13 from deleting the app, reinstalling it, and then falsifying their age information to gain access to the full suite of services provided by TikTok.[7] Given its popularity among young users, TikTok is a potential platform for predators to solicit children.[8] While all children must be careful when using a service like TikTok, children younger than 13 are less equipped to navigate this threat and are particularly vulnerable to abuse when their parents are  uninformed about the application. There are inherent dangers whenever children are online, but as long TikTok is out of compliance with COPPA and the consent decree, young children are at heightened risk. 

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese start-up with links to their government. Given the reasonable concerns that the Chinese government may have access to the data TikTok collects on Americans, it is all the more troubling that the company appears to intentionally be in violation of U.S. data privacy laws.[9]

We appreciate you reviewing the Children’s Privacy Coalition’s complaint and ask that you seriously consider investigating these apparent violations. The ever-changing digital landscape presents many challenges for parents to navigate. This task is made easier by the FTC’s continued efforts to enforce the law and keep children safe online.

Regards,

Ann McLane Kuster                                                   Jan Schakowsky

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Bobby L. Rush                                                            Anna G. Eshoo

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Eliot L. Engel                                                             Diana DeGette

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Doris Matsui                                                               Kathy Castor

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Jerry McNerney                                                          Peter Welch

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Yvette D. Clarke                                                         Scott H. Peters

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

Nanette Diaz Barragán                                               Lisa Blunt Rochester

Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

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[1] Ines Novacic, With schools closed, kids face another type of viral threat: misinformation online, CBSNews (April 3, 2020)  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-schools-closed-kids-face-misinformation-online-cbsn-originals-documentary/

[2] Paige Leskin, TikTok surpasses 2 billion downloads and sets a record for app installs in a single quarter, Business Insider (April 30, 2020) https://www.businessinsider.com/tiktok-app-2-billion-downloads-record-setting-q1-sensor-tower-2020-4

[3] Michael Rosenbloom, Angela J. Campbell, Laura M. Moy, Complaint and Request for Investigation of TikTok for Violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Implementing, p. 21. (May 14, 2020) https://commercialfreechildhood.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/tik_tok_complaint.pdf

[4] TikTok’s owner had $7 billion in revenue for the first half of the year, CNBC (September 30, 2019), https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/30/tiktok-owner-bytedances-first-half-revenue-better-than-expected-at-over-7-billion-sources.html

[5] Stephen P. Mulligan and Chris D. Linebaugh, Data Protection Law: An Overview, Congressional Research Service (March 25, 2019) https://www.crs.gov/Reports/R45631?source=search&guid=cf27138c6434446b8dc5e6ec4a0a8eea&index=

[6] Michael Rosenbloom, Angela J. Campbell, Laura M. Moy, Complaint and Request for Investigation of TikTok for Violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Implementing, p. 2. (May 14, 2020) https://commercialfreechildhood.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/tik_tok_complaint.pdf

[7] Michael Rosenbloom, Angela J. Campbell, Laura M. Moy, Complaint and Request for Investigation of TikTok for Violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and Implementing, p. 2. (May 14, 2020) https://commercialfreechildhood.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/tik_tok_complaint.pdf

[8]Jason Murdock, Los Angeles Man, 35, Targeted Kids on TikTok App Posing as 13-Year-Old, Newsweek (February 15, 2019) https://www.newsweek.com/los-angeles-county-tiktok-application-lasd-james-anthony-gonzales-child-abuse-1333043;  Jason Duaine Hahn, Father Warns Parents About Popular App After His 7-Year-Old Daughter Is Asked to Send Suggestive Photos, People (August 23, 2017) https://people.com/human-interest/father-warns-parents-about-popular-app-after-his-7-year-old-daughter-is-asked-to-send-suggestive-photos/

[9] Jack Nicas, Mike Issac, Ana Swanson, TikTok Said to Be Under National Security Review, NYTimes (November 1, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/technology/tiktok-national-security-review.html.  Justin Sherman, Unpacking TikTok, Mobile Apps and National Security Risks, Lawfare (April 2, 2020) https://www.lawfareblog.com/unpacking-tiktok-mobile-apps-and-national-security-risks;