U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) told TikTok on Tuesday it must put an end to Chinese-linked efforts to collect data from American children.
Blackburn made the demand in a letter sent to Alex Zhu of TikTok Inc. She told the company it is, “paving the way for the Chinese government to gain unfettered and unsupervised access to our children’s lives.”
The Tenessee Senator, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Tech Task Force, also wrote, “TikTok is China’s best detective—surreptitiously collecting and sharing user data, tracking American tweens and teenagers, and manipulating children’s online purchases. Children are vulnerable to being solicited to buy and send emojis in exchange for favors, such as live video chats and giving out personal phone numbers, without parental permission. This has become a disturbingly popular trend.”
A copy of the letter is available here.
The U.S. government has launched a national security review of TikTok owner Beijing ByteDance Technology Co.’s $1 billion acquisition of U.S. social media app musical.ly, The Tennessee Star reported Monday.
Blackburn tweeted, “China’s @tiktok_us is stalking your children, manipulating them, and collecting information on millions of Americans. Do you really want the Communist Party to own the Virtual You?”
China’s @tiktok_us is stalking your children, manipulating them, and collecting information on millions of Americans.
Do you really want the Communist Party to own the Virtual You?
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) November 5, 2019
The text of the letter follows.
TikTok Inc, ByteDance Ltd
10100 Venice Blvd, Suite 301
Culver City, CA 90232
Dear Mr. Zhu:
I write to express great concern that TikTok, a social media video platform owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, is paving the way for the Chinese government to gain unfettered and unsupervised access to our children’s lives.
TikTok is China’s best detective—surreptitiously collecting and sharing user data, tracking American tweens and teenagers, and manipulating children’s online purchases. TikTok stars can earn considerable amounts of money through the platform when their followers purchase virtual gift emojis priced upwards of $50 to send to their favorite streamers, who can then turn those emojis back into cash. Children are vulnerable to being solicited to buy and send emojis in exchange for favors, such as live video chats and giving out personal phone numbers, without parental permission. This has become a disturbingly popular trend.
TikTok’s policies allow for the sharing of data with any of ByteDance’s business partners. This includes advertising networks, outside service providers, and any subsequent sharing that these third parties choose to engage in, regardless of whether it corresponds with TikTok’s policies. Although TikTok has created a version of the app geared for children under 13, it still fails to protect them or older teenagers from data surveillance and predatory behavior.
American parents are woefully unaware of the extent to which their children are being exposed to invasive data collection practices while using TikTok. Despite widespread calls for greater transparency, TikTok does not disclose the age demographics of its user base. According to an October 2019 Forbes report, 41 percent of active users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24, making TikTok one of the most dominant ways to target young users. TikTok masterfully deploys advanced technological tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and facial recognition in order to increase time spent on its platform and capture the attention of American youth.
TikTok’s age ratings, data collection policies, and safety practices fail to adequately warn parents and vulnerable young people of the material they will encounter. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a $5.7 million settlement with TikTok’s predecessor Musical.ly over claims that it illegally gathered personal information from children, the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the FTC in a children’s privacy case. TikTok’s record of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and refusal to delete videos and other data even after requested by parents reveals that TikTok does not properly protect children in the social media age.
It is crucial that Chinese-linked efforts to collect data from American children ends. Because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the app is subject to foreign laws that allow China’s government to seize its information and technology. In light of these concerns, I would like to know what TikTok is doing to protect children’s privacy on its platform and the steps it has taken to safeguard minors from unauthorized data collection and deceptive marketing schemes. Please provide a written response to the following questions by November 26, 2019.
1How many American children under the age of 18 are using TikTok, broken down by each age group?
2How much revenue has TikTok generated from American customers over the past 5 years for in app emoji purchases, and what percentage of that revenue was from children under the age of 18?
3What efforts has TikTok taken to require parental consent for minors to use its app, and what safeguards does TikTok have in place to ensure that parents of minors are aware of and consenting to each emoji purchase on TikTok?
4How is the version of TikTok for children ages 12 and under different from the version for users ages 13 and up?
5To which third party providers does TikTok share information that is collected from child users under the age of 13 and teenage users ages 13 to 17?
Thank you for your attention to these important issues. I look forward to your response.
United States Senator
– – –