The popular lip-synching karaoke app Musical.ly, now known as TikTok, agreed to pay a $5.7 million settlement, in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s allegations that the company violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The sum is the largest-ever settlement from a COPPA case, according to the FTC.
The law outlined by COPPA, which was passed in 1998, requires online services to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under the age of 13. In its complaint, the FTC alleged that Musical.ly did not ask for parents’ consent for sign-ups, even though the company was aware that a “significant percentage of users were younger than 13” and “received thousands of complaints from parents that their children under 13 had created Musical.ly accounts.”
In November 2017, the Chinese-based parent company of TikTok, Bytedance, purchased Musical.ly in a deal worth between $800 million and $1 billion, according to a Reuters report. The app did not ask for a user’s age until 2017, the FTC’s complaint states, and did not request age information from users who had already signed up. As a result, Musical.ly agreed to settle with the FTC, comply with COPPA, and remove all videos made by children under the age of 13.
Musical.ly required users to provide an email address, phone number, username, first and last name, a short biography, and a profile picture in order to create an account on the platform, where people share short videos of themselves singing along to songs or reenacting clips from popular movies and TV shows. The app has been downloaded by over 200 million people worldwide, with 65 million of those users registered in the United States.
The FTC also states that "there have been many public reports of adults trying to contact kids via the Musical.ly App. … Until October 2016, the App had a feature where a user could tap on the 'my city' tab, which provided the user with 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."
In a statement published on TikTok’s website, the Los Angeles–based company said it plans to add additional privacy settings, as well as “tools for parents to protect their teens,” but didn’t specify exactly what that would look like. Additionally, starting today, users under 13 will not be able to share their videos on the platform, comment on others' videos, message with users, or maintain a profile or follows. They will, however, be able to view TikTok videos, and use the app to create their own.
Musical.ly has previously faced criticism for how it handles sensitive content on its platform that children could view, upload, and share. After scrutiny from parents and a March 2018 BuzzFeed News report that showed it was easy for users to search for hashtags related to eating disorders and self-harm, Musical.ly banned search on tags like #proana and #mutilation.