Caixin
Feb 18, 2021 08:26 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

European Consumer Organization Takes TikTok to Task for How It Treats Its Users

As of September, TikTok had more than 100 million monthly active users in the 27 member states of the EU, which has some of the strictest data protection laws in the world.
As of September, TikTok had more than 100 million monthly active users in the 27 member states of the EU, which has some of the strictest data protection laws in the world.

A European consumer rights group has filed a complaint that accused the popular short-video app TikTok of violating the rights of its users and exposing underage viewers to inappropriate material.

The complaint, filed to the European Commission Wednesday, jeopardizes TikTok’s standing in the 27-nation market, which supplies roughly one-seventh of the ByteDance Ltd.-owned app’s total users worldwide. It also puts the company at risk of being fined as much as 4% of its global annual sales under EU data protection rules.

In its complaint, the European Consumer Organization, an umbrella group of other consumer rights groups in Europe, accused the app of setting terms for its users that are “unclear, ambiguous and favour TikTok to the detriment of its users.” As an example, the complaint pointed to the app’s copyright terms that allow it to use, distribute and reproduce videos without paying users for their intellectual property.

“TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale,” Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organization, said in a statement Wednesday.

The complaint also accused TikTok of allowing voluminous commercial marketing and advertising content on the app, and failing to protect children from potentially harmful content, including “branded hashtag challenges,” though it did not give further details.

Hashtag challenges are activities, often publicized by companies as part of online marketing campaigns, in which users takes videos of themselves completing eye-catching but usually uncomfortable or difficult activities, such as having a bucket of ice water dumped on their head. The resulting video post is then marked with a specific hashtag that grows in popularity the more people take up the challenge. TikTok has been a popular place to post such videos. Some challenges, however, can be dangerous.

Earlier this month, Italian media reported that a 10-year-old girl in Italy died after apparently attempting to take part in a “blackout challenge” — in which people choked themselves until they passed out in order to achieve a sense of euphoria. Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into the case, and there have been public calls for stronger regulation of social media.

A TikTok spokesperson told Caixin Wednesday that it was taking measures to better protect underage users, such as making its explanation of user privacy protections for teenagers more comprehensible and adjusting its settings so the accounts of children under the age of 16 are set to private by default. “Keeping the community safe, in particular young users, as well as complying with local laws and regulations, are responsibilities that we take extremely seriously,” the spokesperson said.

The Italian data protection authority, known as the Italian DPA, said in December that it is looking into TikTok’s “poor attention to the protection of children, easy-to-circumvent signup restrictions for children, poor transparency and clarity in user information, (and) privacy-unfriendly default settings.”

On Jan. 21, Italy banned the app until Feb. 15 to stop TikTok from exploiting data of users whose age cannot be verified.

Consumer rights organizations in 14 other European countries have also requested government investigations into the app’s operations, according to the European Consumer Organization’s statement.

As of September, TikTok had more than 100 million monthly active users (MAUs) in the 27 member states of the EU, which has some of the strictest data protection laws in the world. Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Commission has the authority to fine companies as much as 4% of their global annual sales for the most serious violations.

Significant proportions of TikTok’s MAUs, which totaled 689 million last July, are underage. In the U.K., 18% of the app’s 17 million MAUs are under the age of 18, Bloomberg reported. In Italy, about one-third of its 9.8 million MAUs are under 18.

The European Consumer Organization also condemned TikTok for arbitrarily setting and changing the prices of its virtual gifts, which users can buy to reward their favorite celebrities on the app, as well as for not providing clear information about how users’ personal data is collected, used and shared.

Last month, China’s neighboring India government announced it had permanently barred TikTok from operating in the country, where it once had 100 million MAUs, citing concerns over privacy and national security risks.

Beijing-based ByteDance has obtained a temporary reprieve from a potential U.S. ban after the Biden administration asked a federal judge to pause legal proceedings so it could review its predecessor’s policies.

The European Consumer Organization also urged the European Commission and several consumer protection authorities to launch investigations into TikTok. “They must act now to make sure TikTok is a place where consumers, especially children, can enjoy themselves without being deprived of their rights,” its statement said.

Contact reporter Anniek Bao (yunxinbao@caixin.com) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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