TikTok faces consumer law violation complaint in Europe

Photo (c) Witthaya Prasongsin - Getty Images

The app is accused of disguising advertising and failing to clearly inform users of its data collection practices

Europe’s leading consumer advocacy group -- the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurshas (BEUC) -- has filed a complaint against TikTok over claims that the Chinese-owned app violated the bloc’s data privacy laws. 

The BEUC has accused TikTok of violating General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) through its alleged “unclear” terms of service and by "failing to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and inappropriate content."

The complaint was filed in the wake of several reports that analyzed the video-sharing app’s approach to consumer protection through its data protection practices and privacy procedures. 

Hidden advertising

In a press release, the BEUC accused TikTok of allowing companies to peddle their products in a way that young users might not see as advertising. 

“Users are for instance triggered to participate in branded hashtag challenges where they are encouraged to create content of specific products,” the BEUC wrote. “As popular influencers are often the starting point of such challenges the commercial intent is usually masked for users. TikTok is also potentially failing to conduct due diligence when it comes to protecting children from inappropriate content such as videos showing suggestive content which are just a few scrolls away.” 

The group also argues that the app isn’t doing enough to prevent underage users from registering for an account. 

“In practice, it is very easy for underage users to register on the platform as the age verification process is very loose and only self-declaratory,” the BEUC said, citing a number of studies that have suggested that children make up “a very big part” of the app’s user base. 

Data collection concerns

With regard to data collection, the BEUC accused the Chinese-owned app of repeatedly changing its data and protection practices in Europe without publicly disclosing that it had done so. The group claims TikTok has an “ambiguous” privacy policy that doesn’t give users a clear picture of the ways in which it collects and uses personal information. 

The BEUC noted that TikTok’s terms and conditions grant it an “irrevocable right to use, distribute and reproduce the videos published by users, without remuneration.” Also problematic to the group is the app’s lack of an opt-out feature that users can select if they would prefer not to have their personal data collected for advertising. 

Consumer organizations in 15 countries are now pushing for authorities to investigate TikTok.

TikTok said in a statement to Reuters that it's "always open to hearing how we can improve” and that it has contacted BEUC about potentially scheduling a meeting “to listen to their concerns.” The company also said it provides an in-app summary of its privacy that it claims was crafted to be easy for teens to understand.

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