Technology Mar 01

ByteDance $92m privacy settlement with US TikTok users

Chinese tech giant agrees to class-action settlement to resolve data privacy claims from  users, according to documents filed in District Court in Illinois after a year of litigation; firms says it will no longer collect or store user's biometric details or track users' data

ByteDance $92m privacy settlement with US TikTok users
TikTok has tightened its privacy features for younger users. Photo: Reuters.

(ATF) ByteDance has agreed to a $92 million class-action settlement to settle data privacy claims from some US TikTok users, according to documents filed late last week in the US District Court in Illinois.

ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the short-video app that has more than 100 million users in the US – equalling 37% of America’s mobile internet users – agreed to the settlement after more than a year of litigation.

“While we disagree with the assertions, rather than go through lengthy litigation, we’d like to focus our efforts on building a safe and joyful experience for the TikTok community,” TikTok said. The settlement still requires court approval. 

The group of 21 federal lawsuits, some of which are filed on behalf of minors, claimed the TikTok app “infiltrates its users’ devices and extracts a broad array of private data including biometric data and content that defendants use to track and profile TikTok users for the purpose of, among other things, ad targeting and profit.”

It also alleges TikTok "unlawfully transmitted class members’ personal and private viewing histories to third parties like Facebook and Google" and that the company does not "adequately disclose that user data collected from plaintiffs is stored and shared with affiliates in countries outside the United States, such as China."

The settlement was reached after “an expert-led inside look at TikTok’s source code” and extensive mediation efforts, according to the motion seeking approval of the settlement. 

The tentative settlement awaits final approval by US District Judge John Lee of the Northern District of Illinois. 

Under the proposed terms of the agreement, TikTok will no longer collect or store a user's biometric information, including facial characteristics, or track users' GPS data. The company will also be prohibited from storing US user data in databases outside of the country. 

In addition, incoming TikTok employees and contractors will be required to undergo newly designed, annual training on compliance with data privacy laws and company procedures, and TikTok will hire a third party to review data privacy law compliance training for a period of three years.

The agreement comes as TikTok has tightened its privacy features for younger users.

Starting on 17 January, TikTok users aged from 13 to 15 have their default account settings automatically turned to private, while users 16 and older have the ability to change their privacy settings. TikTok is also blocking users’ ability to download videos created by those 15 or younger. This age group will also see direct messaging restricted and won’t be able to host live-streams. 

TikTok is wildly popular with teenagers and younger kids. A feature called TikTok for Younger Users offers pre-selected, “age appropriate" videos. The feature was added after TikTok's predecessor, Musica.ly, settled FTC allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children. It also agreed to pay $5.7 million. 

A tool called “family pairing," meanwhile, lets parents link their TikTok account to their teens to enable content and privacy settings.

Last year, former president Donald Trump issued an executive order forcing a sale of TikTok's American operations. ByteDance reached an ownership deal with Oracle and Walmart, but the move has been put on hold after President Joe Biden ordered a broader review of Americans' use of Chinese technology.

With reporting from Reuters

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