June 23, 2020 Jaclyn Bickerton
Is this the beginning of a TikTok takeover? TikTok is a widely popular video sharing app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance where users share 15-60 second videos that typically involve lip-synching to songs, comedy routines and unusual editing tricks. In late 2017, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, purchased Musical.ly. As a result of the merger, TikTok had smooth access to targeting the US teenage market which previously belonged to Musical.ly. TikTok enables everyone to be a creator and encourages users to share their creative expression through their videos.
With 800 million active users worldwide, TikTok has exploded with popularity over recent years, especially with the under 20 audience. US children ages 4 to 15 spend an average of 82 minutes a day on TikTok (compared with 86 minutes on YouTube and 50 minutes on Instagram, per a recent study by safety app maker Qustodio). TikTok’s usage amount children has increased by 200% this year alone, as kids have been at home stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
TikTok’s current growth trajectory puts it on pace to exceed YouTube in daily video consumption and to overtake Instagram in popularity among kids within the next year. However, alongside TikTok’s rapid expansion, various concerns have grown over the potential to compromise users’ privacy.
In Feb of 2019, TikTok agreed to pay $5.7 Million USD to settle US Government claims that it illegally collected personal information from children. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the penalty against Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, is the largest ever obtained in a children’s privacy case.
The app violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires kid-oriented websites to get parents’ consent before collecting personal information from children under 13. TikTok changed its practices in 2017 to officially ban kids under 13 from joining, but it was not hard to find children as young as eight or nine sharing short videos of themselves on the platform.
Along with failing to adequately seek parents’ permission, the operators of Musical.ly (TikTok) did not honour parents’ requests for personal information to be deleted. The company allegedly deleted some under-age accounts but did not delete their videos and profile information from its own servers. Profile information often included email addresses as well as a child’s name, age, school and picture. Until October 2016, one of the app’s features allowed users to find nearby users within an 80-kilometre radius.
In November 2019, TikTok was hit with a class action lawsuit in the US that claims it transferred “vast quantities” of user data to China. The lawsuit accuses the company of “surreptitiously” taking content without user consent. The platform is facing pressure in North America over data and censorship concerns.
The lawsuit claims TikTok “clandestinely… vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally-identifiable user data”. It alleges the data could be used to identify, profile and track users in the US “now and in the future”. The lawsuit also argues TikTok unfairly profits from “secret harvesting” of private data by using that data to derive “vast targeted-advertising revenues and profits”.
Additionally, US lawmakers have put pressure on the company to clear up allegations that it is beholden to the Chinese state. To alleviate concerns, Tiktok says it has changed over the course of 2019. In a statement released in October of 2019, TikTok claims:
TikTok has also had similar concerns arise in both India and the UK. With so many concerns and the current political climate, only time will tell whether TikTok will stick around and continue to grow or if it will go the way of the dodo. While they claim that changes have been made, TikTok will need to convince lawmakers that the app is operating independently from China if it is to become a mainstay social media platform across North America.
As of June 2020, we are recommending that American marketers hold off on leveraging Tiktok until the security concerns have been addressed and the app is approved by both the United States and Canadian governments.
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Jaclyn Bickerton, Oakville, Ontario, June 2020
U.S. opens national security investigation into TikTok: Reuters sources