Ever since TikTok was launched by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, it has gained enormous popularity worldwide. The app came around after ByteDance bought and rebranded Musical.ly in 2018, and thus TikTok began its global conquest.
But despite its popularity, since its launch, the platform has been consistently grilled globally for its embroilment in allegations of spying, tracking data and theft of data, and propaganda.
Forbes has reported that TikTok has recently come under fire from the US Congress due to its suspicions of TikTok diverting data from its users as well as from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who have fined the platform £12.7 million for misusing children’s data.
But from its takeover of Musical.ly in 2018 to fines amounting to millions of pounds to being under suspicion from US Congress – how exactly did this video-sharing get here?
A Look Back On Worries Over TikTok
Unfortunately, this fine from the ICO is not the first time TikTok has been under attack for breaching safety laws.
There have been worries over what it has meant to have a Chinese app become a large part of modern life so quickly amid a heated political situation.
Although the accusations are often relatively vague, many countries – particularly the US – have voiced concerns that the platform could be used by the Chinese government to collect sensitive data and spy on a global scale.
In 2019, the US government launched a security review of the platform after lawmakers from both the Republican and Democrat parties accused TikTok of posing a risk to the country’s safety.
India has also voiced similar concerns, going so far as to ban TikTok in April 2019 due to claims that it was being used to spread inappropriate content such as pornography and again in 2020 for suspicions the app was stealing user’s data.
But the latest claim has come from a different concern – the accusation that TikTok has been targeting, tracking down and misusing data belonging to children.
TikTok Is Accused Of Failing to Protect The Privacy Of Children
BBC News announced on April 5th that: “TikTok has been fined £12.7 by the UK’s data watchdog for failing to protect the privacy of children.”
The worry over the safety of children on TikTok has been circulating for years. In 2020, it was estimated that TikTok was allowing up to 1.4 million children (meaning those under the age of 13) to go against rules and use the platform in the UK, and this figure has only grown.
According to the ICO, the platform has allowed this whilst blatantly failing to abide by child safety laws.
ICO Commissioner John Edwards stated: “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.”
“As a consequence, an estimated one million under-13s were inappropriately granted access to the platform, with TikTok collecting and using their personal data.”
Despite the platform’s claims they have “invested heavily” to stop under-13s from accessing the site, the accusations that TikTok has been able to attain and use the data of children without parental consent will mean they have explicitly violated child safety laws.
Primarily there have been worries that TikTok having access to data of under-13s has meant they may have been able to track and present them with inappropriate and even potentially harmful content.
Edwards continued: “When you sign up [to TikTok] you can be targeted for advertising, you can be profiled, your data contributes to an algorithm which feeds content,”
“If you’ve been looking at content which is not appropriate for your age, that can get more and more extreme.”
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How Did TikTok Respond, And What Does This Mean For The Future?
Despite the fine, a spokesperson from TikTok has declared outright that the platform “disagree with the ICO’s decision” and has insisted that “our 40,000-strong safety team works around the clock to help keep the platform safe for our community”.
TikTok insists that breaching children’s safety policy is in the past and that they will continue to protect the safety of children on their platform in the future.
So, what does this fine really mean for the future of this video-sharing giant?
Professor Sonia Livingstone works to research children’s digital rights and experiences at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Although Livingstone applauds the step taken by the ICO as one in the right direction, she has voiced fears that the fine may simply be “shrugged off as the cost of doing business” by the platform.
Essentially, this means that TikTok may continue to infringe on children’s safety rights as long as they can continue to simply pay the consequences off.
In short, we can only hope that the platform will actually protect children better in the future, but this fine has by no means made this a certainty.
Furthermore, the platform may still be able to go scot-free of the £12.7 million fine as all fines from the ICO may be appealed for up to 28 days. £12.7 million is also a relatively small amount compared to the £64 billion revenue reported to have been made by ByteDance in 2022 alone.
This cannot help but leave us to wonder if this punishment is truly an effective response to TikTok’s infringement of child safety laws.
Unfortunately, when it comes to what can happen when technology is put in the hands of children behind closed doors, it is incredibly difficult to effectively keep their safety in check.
Those under the age of 13 may be able to get around age restriction laws, and those who safeguard them may either not know or turn a blind eye. Once on the platform, damaging and inappropriate content can be found through targeted algorithms.
Nevertheless, ensuring the safety of children must remain a top priority of all video-sharing sites so that they may be safeguarded and these platforms deemed acceptable for under-13s to use. If TikTok cannot guarantee the safety of all its users, steps must surely be taken to remove it from those it may damage.