U.K. watchdog hits TikTok with a hefty fine for mishandling child data

TikTok must answer to an almost $16 million fine from a British watchdog organization. Here's why.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
TikTok logo on screen
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This week, the popular video-sharing app TikTok was hit with an almost $16 million (£12.7 million) fine from Britain's data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

The ICO justifies the fine because it asserts that TikTok allowed 1.4 million U.K. children under 13 to create an account on the app in 2020. TikTok's minimum age to create an account is 13. 

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TikTok collects and stores user data when people create an account or scroll the For You page without an account. The app gathers IP addresses, location, device metadata, and tracks users' cookies. 

John Edwards, the U.K. information commissioner, told Reuters that these tracking tools could expose children under 13 to harmful and inappropriate content. 

Last month, when TikTok's CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of the U.S. Congress, many congresspeople asked the executive how TikTok would protect children on the app. Chew said that his company does what most social media companies do to vet users who may be too young to be on the app: Trust that users are telling the truth when they sign up for an account.

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When creating a TikTok account, the app will ask users for their date of birth. It is up to users to give an accurate birth date. But as many people have done, some kids will say they're older to get around the app's age restrictions.

However, Chew told Congress that his company has a vetting process and monitors the app for content posted by children under 13. Once TikTok knows someone under 13 is using the app, their account is banned. 

But TikTok's vetting process isn't perfect -- as shown by the fine from the ICO. Some kids slip through the cracks and end up on TikTok without parental permission or supervision. The ICO investigated TikTok's practices for child protection on its app and found that senior employees knew children under 13 were on the app but did not act.

As a result, the ICO concluded that TikTok violated the U.K. General Data Protection Regulation by providing services to children under 13, failing to disclose how the app collects children's user data, and failing to ensure U.K. user data was processed lawfully and transparently. 

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TikTok says it disagrees with the ICO's fine but is happy about the fine's figure, as last year, the U.K. threatened to fine TikTok almost $29 million for the same violations. 

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