TikTok Employee Plans Legal Action Against US Government, New Insights Highlight Concerns About Younger Users

All’s quiet on the TikTok acquisition front, with Microsoft still looking like the leading contender to potentially acquire the short-form video app

But even so, TikTok still has a range of other concerns to deal with, as more investigations and reports highlight issues of note with the app.

Here’s a quick round-up of some of the key TikTok stories, aside from its potential ban in the US, from this week:

TikTok Employees Versus US Government

While TikTok has said that the US Government’s executive order to force the sale of its US operations was “issued without any due process”, and may lead to a legal challenge as a result, this week, a TikTok employee has also decided to take on the US Government over it’s EO, in an effort to save the jobs of Americans who work for the platform.

As reported by Protocol:

“On Tuesday night, [TikTok employee Patrick] Ryan launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a legal battle over the Trump administration’s recent executive order, which prohibits “any transaction by any person” with TikTok owner ByteDance beginning Sept. 20. Ryan, who describes himself as a “recovering lawyer,” argues that such an order would prohibit his employer from paying him and more than 1,400 other TikTok U.S. employees, thereby violating his constitutional right to due process.”

Some legal experts have said that this approach will not work, and that there are limited grounds to challenge an Executive Order, especially when The President invokes the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which relates to national security threats. But it’s another wrinkle in the messy TikTok dispute, which has elements of xenophobia and paranoia, mixed in with genuine security concerns. 

It’s difficult to tell which is the more powerful driving force in this case.

A Third of TikTok Users are Under 14

Meanwhile, The New York Times has gotten hold of an internal report from TikTok which highlights a particularly concerning element.

As per NYT:

“In July, TikTok classified more than a third of its 49 million daily users in the United States as being 14 years old or younger

So, two things – one, TikTok, according to this data, has 49 million daily active users in the US. For context, Snapchat has 90 million North American DAU. Twitter has 36m daily actives in America.

And while TikTok hasn’t released any official user counts, this also aligns with TikTok’s recent note that it has 100 million active users in the US. So, we can assume, based on this, that TikTok has 100m MAU and 49m DAU in America. Which is a lot, and as you can see, it holds up to comparison to other social apps. But it is worth noting in variance to the often-cited total download stats for the app, which are not an indicator of usage.

But the bigger concern here is obviously the very young demographic skew of the app. According to data obtained by NYT, 18 million TikTok users in the US are under 14, with former employees also noting that many are significantly younger, and are getting around the app’s age limiting access tools.

As you may recall, in February last year, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance settled on a record $5.7 million fine from the FTC over claims that it had illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13.  

Given that children still make up such a significant proportion of the app’s user base, various concerns still remain in this respect, and TikTok will need to show that it’s able to protect these younger users, and their personally identifying data, in order to avoid future complications around the same.

There was also this concerning note in the NYT’s report:   

“TikTok does not rely only on users’ self-reported dates of birth to categorize them into age groups. It also estimates their ages using other methods, including facial recognition algorithms that scrutinize profile pictures and videos, said two former TikTok employees and one current employee, who declined to be identified because details of the company’s practices are confidential.”

So TikTok’s also taking in scans of young people’s faces, which, potentially, could be shared with the Chinese Government. 

Ideally, that changes if/when TikTok is US-owned – but then again, it may still collect the same data, even if it’s not shared with the CCP. 

It’s another element for Microsoft to analyze within its due diligence – which it’s conducting under a significant time constraint, especially for a multi-billion dollar deal.

French Officials Open Investigation into TikTok’s Data Practices

On another front, French officials have this week announced a new investigation into TikTok’s data-gathering practices, due, again, to concerns around its measures to protect younger users.

As per Bloomberg:

“The French authority, CNIL, is looking at a number of issues, including how the company communicates with users and the protection of children, a spokesman said Tuesday. The questions are part of an investigation into TikTok’s plan to set up a European Union headquarters for data purposes.”

European Union officials pledged back in June to conduct a more thorough investigation into TikTok’s processes before giving final approval for the company’s plan to establish a European data center in Ireland. As such, this investigation is mostly procedural – yet even so, it’s another pressure lever for the platform, which is facing intense scrutiny on several fronts. 

And if TikTok is not, eventually, approved by EU officials, that could have significant ramifications in other regions.

ByteDance Found to Have Censored Anti-Chinese Sentiment in Another App

And the final TikTok-related news of note from this week is that TikTok parent company ByteDance has reportedly been censoring anti-China sentiment in its Indonesian news aggregation app Baca Berita – or ‘BaBe’ as it’s more commonly known.

As reported by Reuters:

“Chinese tech giant ByteDance censored content it perceived as critical of the Chinese government on its news aggregator app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020, six people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

So it’s been happening up till recently. In response, BaBe acknowledged that it had censored some content, but its regulations were changed in 2019. It did not comment on more recent findings of the same.

Yet, even if it has changed, the concern still remains that ByteDance has, at different times, instructed moderators of its apps to remove anti-China sentiment, which could essentially turn its apps into propaganda tools for the CCP.   

TikTok moderators were also, at one stage at least, removing anti-China content, but they too have since updated their guidelines. There had been some suggestion, too, that TikTok was filtering out content related to the Hong Kong protests late last year, though no definitive evidence has been found to support these claims.

Yet, even so, in its Executive Order calling for the sell-off of the platform, the US Government noted that:

TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.  This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.”

Which brings us back to the first point, and why TikTok has threatened legal action over the Order. Essentially, TikTok says that these claims are unfounded, and as such, do not constitute legal grounds for a ban. 

As you can see, there are various elements at play, and while the concern over how TikTok works for, and can be utilized by, the Chinese Government remains, so too will the scrutiny.

Though even if TikTok is to be sold off, the amount of younger users in the app is also a key concern.

The roller coaster ride continues on.

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