13 May 2021

TikTok May Have Gone Too Far in Child Data Collection

What do Facebook, WhatsApp and TikTok have in common?  Well, they are social media giants, with billions of users all around the world.  But there is something else that these platforms have in common that is worthy of attention.  Lately, they have all been “hunted down” by regulators over their data policies.  So, we wanted to take the time to say a few words on the TikTok case.

What makes the TikTok case special? 

As most of you already know, TikTok is a social media platform used to make short-form videos that last between 15 and 60 seconds.  The videos come from different aspects of life such as dance, comedy, and education.  Developed by Bytedance (a private startup based in Beijing), the company is valued at around USD 75 billion today.  It is a platform most popular amongst youngsters, but, unfortunately, it is also a platform where some of them face problems.  As a result, TikTok is now confronted by a claim, which has been launched on behalf of millions of children in the UK and EU.

What breach are we talking about?

The former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has lodged a claim on behalf of some 3.5 million children in the UK aged under 13.  She claims that TikTok illegally collected data from young users since May 2018 – when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced.

In the UK, TikTok data policy does not allow children under 13 to use the app and requests that users enter their age.  However, the policy hardly prevents them from using the app. According to Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator), 44% of eight to 12-year-olds in the UK use TikTok.  The data shows that the policy isn’t effective and Longfield believes TikTok is “guilty”.

Despite its formal policy, she believes TikTok’s practice is “shady” and “hidden”, as the data is used without sufficient warning, transparency or the necessary consent required by law.  The former children’s commissioner says the app uses all kinds of data illegally, such as addresses, names, dates of birth, likes, interests, whom the users follow, as well as their habits, phone numbers, videos, exact location, etc.  Hence, the claim requests that TikTok recognizes the problem, stops collecting data and deletes illegally collected data.

In its response, TikTok said: “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular.  We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.

Not TikTok’s first data issue

TikTok has already been fined on the same grounds in the USA.  A record fine of USD 5.7 million was imposed on the Chinese company by the US Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) in 2020. Musical.ly, which was integrated into TikTok in 2017, failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses and other personal information from users under the age of 13.  TikTok was ordered to delete the data and set up an age verification system.

A model case

The FTC’s case, however, is not the only similar case that should be considered when trying to figure out the outcome of the latest case against TikTok.  Some lawyers in the UK predict that the case filed by Which? magazine director Richard Lloyd on behalf of four million iPhone users who were allegedly illegally tracked by Google could be a model case for the TikTok ruling.  The case was initially set in motion in 2017 but is yet to be heard before the UK Supreme Court.


As we wait for the TikTok case to unfold, it must be said that it is utterly important to be aware of the data protection rules, and especially when applied to a fragile age group like children under 13.  Since the use of apps is often (or always) conditioned by the user’s agreement to provide access to personal data, it is cases like these that will serve as a reminder to all platforms that flagrant breaches of law will not, and should not, be tolerated.


Authors: Ivana Stojanović Raišić, Miloš Brkić