TikTok breaches users’ rights and fails to protect children from hidden advertising, according to a consumer group’s complaint to the EU

TikTok Germany
A young man walks past an advertisement for social media company TikTok that reads: ‘Everything begins with TikTok’on September 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  • A complaint to the European Commission accuses TikTok of exposing users to inappropriate content.
  • Consumer group BEUC also alleges TikTok misleads people about how it uses their data.
  • “Given a large proportion of its users are children, this is even more concerning and dangerous,” BEUC said.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

TikTok breaches consumer rights and “fails to protect children from hidden advertising and inappropriate content,” a consumer-rights group said in a complaint against the platform to the European Commission filed on Tuesday.

The BEUC, which styles itself as the European Consumer Organization, also claims TikTok is infringing EU law by misleading users in how it processes personal data, preventing young people from making informed decisions about their data rights under EU data rules.

“Given a large proportion of its users are children, this becomes even more concerning and dangerous,” David Martín, senior legal officer at the BEUC said.

“We’re concerned they’re not respecting EU law on the consumer rights part but also we’ve found a lot of concerning around data protection rights and privacy.”

It asked authorities to launch an investigation into the app, saying TikTok was failing to “prevent hidden advertising from proliferating on its platform” or limit children’s exposure to it.

The consumer rights group also said the app’s terms of service were not transparent.

The BEUC also raised concerns about multiple identifiers the app uses to track smartphones whenever people open it.

Hannah Smethurst, a Scottish data protection researcher, said the app’s method of processing personal data was a concern.

She told Insider: “If you want to process personal data, for example, for providing personalized advertising, you need to fall within one of the six legal bases within the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation].

“TikTok’s privacy policy suggests it’s relying on consent, but the standard for this is high – it needs to be freely given, sufficiently informed, genuine, explicit consent. It’s about control.”

Smethurst added: “TikTok know this is wrong. They’ve been fined $US5.7 ($7) million by the US Federal Trade Commission and 168 million won ($US168,000 ($216,937)) by the Korea Communications Commission for how they handle children’s data, and there’s potentially an England-based challenge coming up. They don’t seem to care.”

Frederike Kaltheuner, who has previously worked at the Oxford Internet Institute and Privacy International, said BEUC’s complaint was not surprising.

“If several terms in TikTok’s Terms of Service are unfair and favor TikTok to the detriment of its users, this is something the company needs to change,” she said.

“People love TikTok. This is about making sure the platform plays by the rules and doesn’t expose people to invasive hidden advertising when they are just trying to get through lockdown and have fun.”

TikTok is already under investigation by the European Data Protection Board (EPDB), with a taskforce from the European Union-affiliated body launched in June 2020. 

The BEUC has written to the EPDB about its latest findings.

A TikTok spokesperson told Insider: “Keeping our community safe, especially our younger users, and complying with the laws where we operate are responsibilities we take incredibly seriously.

“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.

“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 spokesperson added: “We have contacted BEUC as we would welcome a meeting to listen to their concerns.”

The BEUC’s Martin confirmed TikTok had contacted them. “We will be happy to hear what they say, but really they should start with reading everything we have put out,” he said. 

“The reaction so far is not really addressing most of the issues we are putting on the table.”

Martin added: “There are already several investigations ongoing. We’re happy to hear them out, and happy to see they want to improve, but really their focus should be on getting in touch with the authorities at this stage.”