The app formerly known as Musical.ly and currently known as TikTok is being sued over allegations that it collected and exposed the personally identifiable data of children under 13 in violation of child privacy protection laws.
China’s Bytedance in 2017 acquired Musical.ly—which originally launched in 2014—in a deal valued at nearly $1 billion at the time. Bytedance later announced that it was rebranding Musical.ly as TikTok, an existing app with a short-form video format. All three companies are named as defendants in the class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The complaint viewed by Gizmodo alleges that its app’s first problem was that it failed to create adequate safeguards to prevent minors from using the app. In order to create an account, the app required personally identifying information of users like their email address, phone number, username, first and last name, and a photo and bio in which they might reveal their age. Moreover, the suit alleges that between December 2015 and October 2016, the app also collected location data on users, a feature that “enabled Defendants and other users of the App to identify where a user was located.”
In addition to being a platform on which users could communicate with other users on their videos and through direct messages, user accounts were set to public by default—along with all of that personally identifying information. However, the suit alleges that even if users were to set their profile to private, “their profiles, including usernames, profile pictures, and bios, remained public and searchable by other users.”
Further, the suit claims that up until October 2016, the app had a feature that would allow users to connect with other Musical.ly users in their area via a “my city” tab, which would surface “a list of other users within a 50-mile radius, and with whom the user could connect and interact with by following the user or sending direct messages.” The suit alleges that this combination of failures created a situation that could potentially turn into a dangerous and predatory environment for children.
“Because the App had virtually all privacy features disabled by default, there were serious ramifications, including reports of adults trying to contact minor children via the App,” the complaint states. “These reports exposed the dangerous potential of the App, which allowed adults posing as children to send inappropriate messages to minor children using the App.”
The complaint alleges that Musical.ly received “thousands” of notices from parents about their children being on the app without their consent.
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had reached a $5.7 million settlement with Musical.ly over a separate complaint that alleged the company “illegally collected personal information from children” in violated of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
In a statement to Gizmodo by email regarding the new complaint, a spokesperson for TikTok said that a “resolution should be announced soon.”
“TikTok was made aware of the allegations in the complaint some time ago, and although we disagree with much of what is alleged in the complaint, we have been working with the parties involved to reach a resolution of the issues,” the spokesperson said.