On Monday, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a U.K. privacy watchdog, accused Chinese social media giant TikTok of having breached the nation’s Data Protection Act 2018 by reportedly processing the data of countless children who use the app without parental consent.
“We all want children to be able to learn and experience the digital world, but with proper data privacy protections,” said John Edwards, the U.K. Information Commissioner. “Companies providing digital services have a legal duty to put those protections in place but our provisional view is that TikTok fell short of meeting that requirement.”
According to a statement on the ICO’s website, a “notice of intent” was sent to both TikTok Inc. and TikTok Information Technologies UK Limited, warning the social media platform of the potential fine and informing them their conduct “may have breached UK data protection law, failing to protect children’s privacy when using the TikTok platform.”
The ICO said that this breach had occurred during the period from May 2018 and July 2020. During this time, the ICO states that TikTok may have “processed the data of children under the age of 13 without appropriate parental consent,” “failed to provide proper information to its users in a concise, transparent, and easily understandable way,” and “processed special category data, without legal grounds to do so.”
The ICO did note that the findings of its investigation are not necessarily conclusive, but “provisional,” adding that it is willing to take anything that TikTok representatives may have to say into consideration before making a final decision about the proposed fine.
In a statement emailed to Reuters, TikTok said that “while we respect the ICO’s role in safeguarding privacy in the UK, we disagree with the preliminary views expressed and intend to formally respond to the ICO in due course.”
This is not the first time that TikTok has been fined for a breach of privacy. In 2019, the social media platform was fined 5.7 million dollars by the United States government under then-president Donald Trump for illegally collecting personal information from children.
TikTok “knew many children were using the app, but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” said Joe Simons, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission at the time.
TikTok was also fined by the Dutch Data Protection Authorities in July of 2021 for once again violating the privacy of children. The DPA stated that since the privacy agreement was written in English, “TikTok failed to provide an adequate explanation of how the app collects, processes and uses personal data” to those who spoke Dutch.
TikTok has similarly been investigated by the European Union on comparable grounds.