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After US, UK investigates TikTok over how it handles children’s personal data

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The United Kingdom is investigating video-sharing app TIkTok for how it handles children’s personal data, and whether it prioritises the safety of children on its platform, the Guardian reported. The investigation began in February and was prompted by the $5.7 million fine that US’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) levied on TikTok, Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, told a parliamentary committee. TikTok had been penalised by FTC for illegally collecting personal information of children below 13 years of age without parental consent.

In addition to concerns about how TikTok collected private data, the platform’s open messaging system, which allows any adult to message any child is also an issue, Denham said. TikTok might even be in violation of GDPR, the European Union’s data protection law, which “requires the company to provide different services and different protections for children”. If the company is found to have violated GDPR, it could be fined up to €20 million (approximately ₹155.3 crore), or 4% of its revenue, whichever is higher. Since ByteDance is a private company, its revenue is not disclosed, but it is valued at $75 billion, the Guardian report said.

YouTube, Amazon also under investigation for violating children’s privacy

On June 19, the Washington Post reported that the FTC was in the late stages of an investigation into YouTube for allegedly violating children’s privacy. The probe has already prompted the company to re-evaluate some of its business practices, and may result in a potential fine. The investigation resulted from numerous complaints from consumer groups and privacy advocated that allege that YouTube violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and FTC’s COPPA Rule as it collected children’s data without parental consent.

A week before that, a lawsuit filed in a federal court in Seattle alleged that Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant records children who use it without their consent and saves recordings permanently. The complaint, filed on behalf of a 10-year-old girl from Massachusetts on June 11, alleged that Amazon saves a permanent recording of the user’s voice, and its devices record and transmit any speech captured after they are activated by the “wake word”, even if the speaker is someone who didn’t buy the device or installed the associated app on their phone. The suit alleged that Alexa was capable of identifying speakers based on their voices.

TikTok’s repeated run-ins with Indian authorities

British and American authorities aren’t the only ones TikTok has run afoul of. With 200 million monthly active users in India, the company has repeatedly run into trouble with Indian authorities. Earlier this week, MP Shashi Tharoor said there were reports that  the Chinese government received data from TikTok through the wholly state-owned China Telecom, a claim that TikTok has since refuted. In April, TikTok was banned in India by the Madras High Court, which said it was spreading pornography, potentially exposing children to sexual predators, and adversely impacting its the mental health of its users. The ban, however, was lifted on April 24 after the Supreme Court intervened.

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The company was also called by the Election Commission of India ahead of the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, to discuss taking down content that violated the ECI’s guidelines during the polls. Since then, TikTok has introduced an age gate in India that disallows users younger than 13 from creating accounts on the platform; moderated content; and created a Safety Centre — a resource that gives users tools and information to protect themselves online — in 10 Indian languages.

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