Video-sharing app fined $5.7 million for collecting information on children

The operator of a video-sharing app popular with teens has agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle federal allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children.

The Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday’s sanction against the lip-syncing app Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, is the largest ever in a children’s privacy case.

The FTC said the app violates the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires websites aimed at children to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under the age of 18. 13 years old.

The app changed its practices in 2017 to officially ban children under 13 from signing up, but it wasn’t hard to find kids as young as 8 or 9 sharing short videos of themselves- same on the platform.

“Just because you say it’s for people over 13 doesn’t mean it is,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, told a conference call. telephone on Wednesday.

Musical.ly, founded in 2014 and registered in the Cayman Islands, grew rapidly and operated from offices in Shanghai and California. The FTC said the app has been downloaded by more than 200 million people worldwide and 65 million in the United States.

He built a devoted community of self-proclaimed “musers” who regularly shared videos of lip-syncing, dancing, gymnastics, or comedy. But the app has also raised concerns among many parents, especially after reports of adult predators using the app to contact children.

Smith said that in addition to failing to adequately seek parental permission, the operators of Musical.ly failed to honor parental requests to delete personal information. Smith said the company removed some underage accounts but did not remove their videos and profile information from its own servers.

Profile information often included email addresses as well as a child’s name, age, school, and photo. Until October 2016, one of the features of the app allowed users to find nearby users within a 50 mile radius.

Beijing-based ByteDance Technology announced it was acquiring the platform in late 2017, and last summer integrated Musical.ly into its own popular Los Angeles-based video app, TikTok.

TikTok said in a blog post on Wednesday that, alongside the FTC deal, it is launching a separate app for young US users with enhanced security and privacy protections. Children using the new app will be able to watch videos but will not be able to share their own videos, comment, maintain a profile or send messages to other users.

TikTok’s plans to launch a new app for kids has troubled Josh Golin, who leads the Boston-based campaign for an ad-free childhood.

“TikTok shouldn’t be near children, and children shouldn’t be near TikTok,” Golin said.

Golin and other privacy advocates were also disappointed by the FTC’s record fine, arguing that big companies such as ByteDance will simply see it as the cost of doing business.

Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Edward Markey, author of the decades-old privacy law on which the FTC’s complaint was based, said in a statement on Wednesday that the fine “is not high enough for the harm done to children and to deter violations of the law”. law in the future by other companies.

Children’s advocates have pushed the FTC to investigate whether other companies, including Google’s YouTube, are similarly violating children’s online privacy.

The FTC said its Musical.ly investigation was prompted in part by a referral from the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit, a group created by the industry to self-regulate.

Shirley K. Rosa