TikTok struck with consumer law complaints in Europe

Saqib Shah
·Contributing Writer
·3 min read

TikTok is under fire in Europe amid a growing backlash against the data collection policies of big tech and social media. The region's leading consumer advocacy group, BEUC, has filed a complaint against the Chinese-owned app with the EU's network of consumer protection authorities. It claims TikTok is violating the bloc's stringent data privacy laws, known as the GDPR, through its alleged "vague" terms of service and by "failing to protect children" from hidden "advertising and inappropriate content."

The complaint stems from the findings of two reports analyzing the short-form video app's privacy policy and mobile data processing techniques. According to the BEUC, TikTok has repeatedly changed its data and protection practices in the wider European region without publicly addressing the updates. The group adds that TikTok also fails to detail the ways in which it collects personal information under lawful grounds in its "ambiguous" privacy policy.

It also raises concerns over the obfuscation of the app's advertising practices, claiming its pop-up consent mechanism for personalized ads fails to live up to GDPR requirements. And that TikTok does not clarify what this authorization entails in terms of how it actually profiles users for advertising purposes. 

Therefore, the BEUC concludes that the app has fallen afoul of the GDPR's tenets of transparent data capture and minimization, which dictate that a service should clearly demonstrate that it collects no more than the minimum amount of data required for its operations. This also negatively impacts users' ability to invoke their rights regarding the use of their personal information, according to the BEUC.

On the technical side, it claims TikTok tracks users through multiple identifiers regardless of their age, preferences, or the state of their accounts. The consumer group emphasizes that younger users can easily bypass the app's age verification method, after which they are exposed to "hidden" ad practices that encourage them to create content for brands in the guise of hashtag challenges. Alongside the BEUC’s complaint, consumer organizations in 15 countries have alerted their national authorities and pushed them to start their own investigations.

TikTok in its response to Reuters said that it's "always open to hearing how we can improve, and we have contacted BEUC as we would welcome a meeting to listen to their concerns.” It also pointed to its in-app summary of its privacy policy that it claims makes it easier to digest for teens, which make up the biggest chunk of its user base.

Last year, Europe's data protection board set up a TikTok task force to help coordinate potential actions taken against the company. The move was designed to streamline the multiple privacy investigations the app was facing in France, Italy, Holland, and Denmark. Meanwhile, the BEUC has previously rallied against Google's then pending acquisition of Fitbit over data collection concerns, though that deal was eventually cleared by the European Commission late last year following an extended merger investigation.