Roughly a third of TikTok’s 49 million daily users in the United States are 14 years old or younger, The New York Times reported Friday, citing internal documents.
The Chinese app’s workers noticed videos from children who appear much younger that remained on the video-streaming platform for weeks, a former employee told the Times. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), passed in 1998, requires internet companies to obtain parental permission before gathering data from adolescents under 13.
Data show that the number of TikTok’s daily U.S. users in July that the company believe to be 14 or younger was 18 million, or around the same number of users over 14, the Times reported. The app’s other U.S. users are of unknown age, according to the report. (RELATED: Trump Admin Is Seriously Considering Banning TikTok And Other Chinese Apps, Pompeo Says)
TikTok conducts “high-level age-modeling to better understand our users and allow our safety team to better protect the safety of our younger teens in particular,” the company said in a statement to the Times.
The app relies on multiple methods to determine user ages. Employees use facial recognition algorithms that scrutinize profile pictures and videos, two former TikTok employees and one current employee told the Times. The employees commented anonymously because details of the app’s practices are confidential. TikTok also relies on self-reporting.
“I would argue, once their systems have indicated to them that a user is likely under 13, that they are past the point where they can bury their head in the sand, that their legal obligation has kicked in,” Josh Golin, the executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told the Times.
The app has an obligation to investigate if its system is not detecting such a large number of under age participants, Golin added. The Federal Trade Commission fined Musical.ly, an app that was merged with TikTok in 2018, $5.7 million fine in 2019 to settle accusations that it broke COPPA rules.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump signed a pair of executive orders on Aug. 6 prohibiting American companies and individuals from communicating with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, and Chinese social media platform WeChat for 45 days. Trump suggested on Aug. 3 that he be amenable to Microsoft purchasing the upstart company.
Sen. Josh Hawley called on the Trump administration to “ban” the app in a tweet Friday responding to the Times report. TikTok “has already violated USA child privacy laws and last year promised the FTC they would cease and desist. They don’t appear to be living up to that promise,” the Missouri senator wrote. “I’ve asked FTC to investigate.”
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