Teen video app Musical.ly agrees to FTC fine

Jermaine Castillo
March 2, 2019

The penalty applies to Musical.ly, the video lip-syncing app that TikTok absorbed last August as part of an acquisition. According to CARU, the app violates USA children's privacy law by collecting the personal data of under age users without their parents' consent.

The company behind the popular lip-syncing app TikTok has agreed to pay almost $6 million as part of a record-breaking settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that it "illegally collected" sensitive data from children - including voice recordings and geolocation.

COPPA-the US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act-compels companies that intend to collect personal information to obtain parental consent from users under age 13.

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The app, which is owned by the Chinese giant Bytedance, a private startup with a $75bn valuation, admitted to improper data collection in a statement following the settlement and said that it would begin keeping younger users in "age-appropriate TikTok environments", where those under 13 would be pushed into a more passive role, able to watch videos, but not post or comment on the platform. Additionally, the FTC said Musical.ly accounts were public by default, meaning that a child's profile biography, username, picture and videos could be seen by other users. TikTok knows its audience may not know how to deal with harassment and other inappropriate behavior, and this might help kids (and their parents) address it directly. The agency found a large percentage of the app's users were under 13 and revealed sensitive personal information, including their email addresses, names and schools. But the app also raised concerns among many parents, especially after news reports of adult predators using the app to contact children. You can imagine how this might be problematic if, say, a Musical.ly, account belonged to an 11-year-old.

Additionally, as of Wednesday, TikTok users in the USA will be required to verify their age when they open the app.

The FTC said it was a record fine for a child privacy violation. "This is an ongoing commitment, and we are continuing to expand and evolve our protective measures in support of this".

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"This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law", he added. These could include a principle that if data of children is specifically sought, obtained for sale/transfer on a commercial basis, consent of a parent or legal guardian should be obtained before collecting and using such data in such manner.

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

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