UK privacy watchdog fines TikTok $15.8 million for misusing kids' data

It says TikTok broke its own rules by letting up to 1.4 million under-13s use the app.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

A UK privacy watchdog has fined TikTok £12.7 million ($15.8 million) for what it says are several breaches of data protection laws, including how the app handled children's personal information. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) says that, in 2020, TikTok allowed as many as 1.4 million kids aged under 13 to use the app in breach of its own rules.

The ICO states that companies offering "information society services" to under-13s need to obtain consent from the kids' parents or guardians. TikTok didn't do that, according to the regulator, which noted the company "ought to have been aware that under-13s were using its platform." Moreover, the ICO (an independent public body) said TikTok didn't do enough to find and remove underage users from the app — despite some senior employees raising concerns about the issue.

The office determined that, between May 2018 and July 2020, TikTok breached the UK General Data Protection Regulation in several ways. Among other things, the ICO says TikTok failed to properly inform users in an easy-to-understand way how it handles and shares their data. As such, TikTok users, including kids, "were unlikely to be able to make informed choices about whether and how to engage" with the app. The office added that TikTok failed to make sure that it was processing the data it held on UK users "lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner."

“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,” TikTok told ABC News. “We will continue to review the decision and are considering next steps.”

The fine is not as steep as previously expected. After publishing the preliminary findings of its TikTok investigation, which started in February 2019, the ICO warned the company in September that it faced a fine of as much as £27 million ($33.7 million). The probe started around the time the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million over child privacy violations.

More recently, TikTok has faced deeper scrutiny from regulators around the globe over privacy and security worries. Some governments have raised concerns that the platform's parent company ByteDance (which is based in Beijing) may be compelled to share data on their countries' residents with Chinese officials. Last month, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told a House committee that "ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country."

Nevertheless, the app has been banned from government devices in several territories, including the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and the European Parliament. Dozens of US states have prohibited TikTok on devices they own as well. Several bills have been introduced that would give the US the power to ban the platform completely, while TikTok has claimed the White House is trying to force ByteDance to sell the app.