Embattled Chinese owned short-video-sharing platform TikTok has received a £12.7m fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for breaching UK data protection law by failing to protect children’s privacy when using the TikTok platform.
Notice Of Intent Issued Last Year
The ICO issued TikTok Inc and TikTok Information Technologies UK Limited (‘TikTok’) with the ‘notice of intent’ (a legal document that precedes a potential fine) back in September 2022.
At the time (following an investigation), the ICO’s published its (then provisional) view that TikTok may have breached UK data protection law between May 2018 and July 2020.
The ICO investigation found the company processed the data of children under the age of 13 without appropriate parental consent, failed to provide proper information to its users in a concise, transparent, and easily understood way, and processed special category data, without legal grounds to do so.
The ICO estimates that TikTok allowed as many as 1.4 million UK children under the age of 13 to use the platform in 2020, despite having set 13 as the minimum age to create a TikTok account.
UK Data Protection Law
Under the UK’s GDPR, platforms that offer information to children under the age of 13 must obtain parental consent before collecting, processing, or storing any personal data of children. This includes information such as their name, address, location, and other identifying information.
GDPR also requires that controllers of personal data must take appropriate measures to ensure that the processing of personal data of children is lawful, fair, and transparent. Additionally, platforms must ensure that the personal data of children is secure and protected from unauthorised access.
Didn’t Abide By The Law
Speaking about its decision to impose the £12.7b million fine, UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said: “There are laws in place to make sure our children are as safe in the digital world as they are in the physical world. TikTok did not abide by those laws.”
A TikTok spokesperson is reported to have disagreed with the decision and commented: “We invest heavily to help keep under 13s off the platform and our 40,000 strong safety team works around the clock to help keep the platform safe for our community.”
However, the spokesperson said the company was “pleased that the fine announced today has been reduced to under half the amount proposed last year” (it was originally proposed to be £27 million!).
Trouble Over TikTok
This announcement has come at a time when TikTok has faced questions and sanctions from many countries. For example, just some recent setbacks for TikTok have included:
– Banning of the TikTok app from EU, US, Australia, New Zealand, and Indian government devices over privacy and security concerns and a possible link to the Chinese state, plus more trouble on the way in Canada.
– Banning of the app in Italy over data privacy concerns.
– TikTok boss Shou Zi Chew being called to face questions at the US Congress over possible close links between the company and the Chinese state.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
This fine relates to a data protection offence, albeit a serious one because it relates to young users, which dates back several years. Although the fine seems large and TikTok doesn’t fully agree with the decision, the company appears to be pleased that the fine is less than half of the £27 million originally suggested. TikTok has had nothing but bad publicity lately, so this fine is another in a series of difficulties that look set to continue for the company as it is embroiled in both political and privacy arguments in several countries.
That said, GDPR applies to all and protecting young social media users has become a very prominent and important issue in recent years as more stories emerge of the harm caused to them, e.g. via damaging online content, bullying, grooming and abuse. Protecting the personal data of children is something that arguably, many social media platforms could be much better at and the UK’s Online Safety Bill is another mechanism that this country’s government is using to force social media platforms and chat apps to take their responsibilities more seriously.
Data protection issues aside, TikTok is likely to face more hostility going forwards while the West’s relationship with China remains poor.
By Mike Knight