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TikTok targeted over ‘misleading’ privacy practices and ‘ambiguous’ terms in Europe

February 16, 2021, 11:05 AM UTC

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TikTok has been hit with a volley of complaints from Europe’s consumer-protection watchdogs, over practices they say are unfair to users—particularly kids.

The complaints cover TikTok’s “unclear” and “ambiguous” terms of service, its alleged failure to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and harmful content, and its “misleading” privacy practices.

“In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe,” said Monique Goyens, the director general of the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), in a Tuesday statement. “But TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale. We have discovered a whole series of consumer rights infringements and therefore filed a complaint against TikTok.”

BEUC—an umbrella body for the EU’s consumer watchdogs—has filed a complaint with the European Commission, while consumer organizations in 15 EU countries have also lodged complaints with their national authorities.

Remuneration

Some of TikTok’s complained-about activities are standard practice in the world of social media. For example, BEUC says, the platform’s copyright terms are unfair because “they give TikTok an irrevocable right to use, distribute, and reproduce the videos published by users, without remuneration.” This is the kind of issue that was causing an outcry among Facebook users more than a decade ago.

The watchdogs also say TikTok is breaking the EU’s theoretically tough but poorly enforced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), because it doesn’t clearly tell its users which personal data it is collecting and why, “especially in a way comprehensible to children and teenagers.” TikTok is already being investigated over alleged GDPR violations by data-protection authorities in France, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

“Every day we work hard to protect our community, which is why we have taken a range of major steps, including making all accounts belonging to users under 16 private by default,” a TikTok spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We’ve also developed an in-app summary of our privacy policy with vocabulary and a tone of voice that makes it easier for teens to understand our approach to privacy.”

The ever-present issue of hidden advertising is also in play here, with the consumer advocates targeting TikTok over its branded hashtag challenges, in which influencers encourage users to make content involving specific products. Similarly, the accusation that TikTok is not shielding young users from inappropriate content is one that is regularly lobbed at all kinds of social media platforms.

Some of the complaints are more novel, though. For one thing, BEUC is taking aim at TikTok’s virtual gift system, through which users can purchase coins that can then be used to buy gifts such as a virtual panda or “rainbow puke” for creators.

“TikTok claims…an absolute right to modify the exchange rate between the coins and the gifts, potentially skewing the financial transaction in its own favor,” the consumer group said.

TikTok hit the headlines last year when the Trump administration told its owner, ByteDance, to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to American companies. Oracle and Walmart were supposed to be the buyers. But ByteDance has now reportedly dropped the plans now that Trump is gone.

This article was updated to include TikTok’s statement.