TikTok is facing a fresh round of regulatory complaints in Europe where consumer protection groups have filed a series of coordinated complaints alleging multiple breaches of EU law.
The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) has lodged a complaint against the video sharing site with the European Commission and the bloc’s network of consumer protection authorities, while consumer organizations in 15 countries have alerted their national authorities and urged them to investigate the social media giant’s conduct.
The complaints include claims of unfair terms, including in relation to copyright and TikTok’s virtual currency; concerns around the type of content children are being exposed to on the platform; and accusations of misleading data processing and privacy practices.
Details of the alleged breaches are set out in two reports associated with the complaints: One covering issues with TikTok’s approach to consumer protection, and another focused on data protection and privacy.
On child safety, the report accuses TikTok of failing to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and potentially harmful content on its platform.
TikTok’s marketing offers to companies who want to advertise on the app contributes to the proliferation of hidden marketing. Users are for instance triggered to participate in branded hashtag challenges where they are encouraged to create content of specific products. 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. 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.BEUC Statement
In France, 45% of children below 13 have indicated using the app. In the United Kingdom, a 2020 study from the Office for Telecommunications (OFCOM) revealed that 50% of children between eight and 15 upload videos on TikTok at least weekly.
In Czech Republic, a 2019 study found out that TikTok is very popular among children aged 11-12. In Norway, a news article reported that 32% of children aged 10-11 used TikTok in 2019. In the United States, that is more than one-third of daily TikTok users are 14 or younger, and many videos seem to come from children who are below 13.
The fact that many underage users are active on the platform does not come as a surprise as recent studies have shown that, on average, a majority of children owns mobile phones earlier and earlier for example, by the age of seven in the UK.
TikTok lets users purchase digital coins which they can use to buy virtual gifts for other users (which can in turn be converted by the user back to fiat). But BEUC says its Virtual Item Policy contains unfair terms and misleading practices pointing to how it claims an absolute right to modify the exchange rate between the coins and the gifts, thereby potentially skewing the financial transaction in its own favor.
Virtual currency feature also highlighted as problematic in consumer rights
The amount of the final monetary compensation that is ultimately earned by the content provider remains obscure. According to TikTok, the compensation is calculated based on various factors including the number of diamonds that the user has accrued. TikTok does not indicate how much the app retains when content providers decide to convert their diamonds into cash. Playful at a first glance, TikTok’s virtual item policy is highly problematic from the point of view of consumer rights.BEUC report
While TikTok displays the price to buy packs of its virtual coins there is no clarity over the process it applies for the conversion of these gifts into in-app diamonds which the gift-receiving user can choose to redeem for actual money, remitted to them via PayPal or another third party payment processing tool.
On data protection and privacy, the social media platform is also accused of a whole litany of misleading practices including in relation to children. Here the complaint accuses TikTok of failing to clearly inform users about what personal data is collected, for what purpose, and for what legal reason as is required under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Other issues flagged in the report include the lack of any opt-out from personal data being processed for advertising (aka forced consent something tech giants like Facebook and Google have also been accused) the lack of explicit consent for processing sensitive personal data (which has special protections under GDPR) and an absence of security and data protection by design, among other issues.
We’ve reached out to the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), which is TikTok’s lead supervisor for data protection issues in the EU, about the complaint and will update this report with any response.
France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, already opened an investigation into TikTok last year prior to the company shifting its regional legal base to Ireland meaning data protection complaints must now be funneled through the Irish DPC as a result of via the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism adding to the regulatory backlog.
The upshot of breaches that iterate is that repeat violations of the law may never be enforced.
In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe. 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.
Children love TikTok but the company fails to keep them protected. We do not want our youngest ones to be exposed to pervasive hidden advertising and unknowingly turned into billboards when they are just trying to have fun. Together with our members consumer groups from across Europe we urge authorities to take swift action. They must act now to make sure TikTok is a place where consumers, especially children, can enjoy themselves without being deprived of their rights.Monique Goyens – DG of BEUC
Reached for comment on the complaints, a TikTok spokesperson told
Consumer rights have to be equally well protected online and offline. The Commission reaffirmed this also with its New Consumer Agenda, presented at the end of last year. The European Commission will carefully consider all the elements brought forward by BEUC together with the national consumer authorities in the coming weeks to assess the need for further investigation into the matter.