TikTok Slapped with a Whopping $368M Fine Over Europe’s Stringent Data Privacy Regulations

European regulators have imposed a significant fine of $368 million on TikTok for its failure to protect children’s privacy, marking the first time the popular short video-sharing app has faced punishment for violating Europe’s stringent data privacy rules. The fine, amounting to 345 million euros, was levied by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, the primary privacy regulator for major tech companies based in Dublin. The violations occurred during the latter half of 2020.

The investigation uncovered that TikTok’s sign-up process for teenage users automatically set their accounts to be public, allowing anyone to view and comment on their videos. This default setting posed a risk to children under 13 who were able to access the platform despite being prohibited. Additionally, a feature called “family pairing,” intended to allow parents to manage settings, was not sufficiently restrictive. It allowed adults to activate direct messaging for users aged 16 and 17 without their consent. Furthermore, the platform guided teenage users towards more privacy-intrusive options when signing up and posting videos, according to the watchdog.

TikTok responded to the decision by stating its disagreement, particularly with regard to the magnitude of the imposed fine. The company emphasized that the regulator’s criticisms focused on features and settings from three years ago. TikTok highlighted that it had already implemented changes well in advance of the investigation, such as making all accounts for users under 16 private by default and disabling direct messaging for 13 to 15-year-olds. Elaine Fox, TikTok’s head of privacy for Europe, explained in a blog post that most of the criticisms raised in the decision are no longer relevant due to measures introduced at the start of 2021, several months before the investigation commenced.

The Irish regulator has faced criticism for the perceived slow pace of its investigations into major tech companies since the implementation of EU privacy laws in 2018. In the case of TikTok, German and Italian regulators disagreed with certain aspects of a draft decision issued a year ago, resulting in further delays. In an effort to prevent future bottlenecks, the European bloc’s Brussels headquarters has been entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing new regulations aimed at promoting digital competition and improving the quality of social media content. These rules are intended to maintain the EU’s position as a global leader in tech regulation.

In response to initial objections raised by German authorities, the European Data Protection Board, the top panel of data regulators in Europe, stated that TikTok influenced teenage users through pop-up notices that failed to present their choices in an impartial and objective manner. Anu Talus, the chair of the European Data Protection Board, emphasized the responsibility of social media companies to avoid presenting choices to users, especially children, in an unfair manner that could potentially lead to decisions that compromise their privacy interests.

Meanwhile, the Irish watchdog also examined TikTok’s measures to verify the age of users, ensuring compliance with regulations. It concluded that the platform did not violate any rules in this regard. The regulator is currently conducting a second investigation to determine whether TikTok adhered to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation when transferring users’ personal information to China, the home country of its owner, ByteDance. TikTok has faced allegations of posing a security risk due to concerns over the potential exposure of users’ sensitive information in China. To address these concerns, TikTok has initiated a project to localize user data in Europe and is set to open a data center in Dublin this month, the first of three on the continent.

In addition to the fine imposed by European regulators, TikTok faced a £12.7 million ($15.7 million) penalty from British data privacy regulators in April for its misuse of children’s data and other violations of protections for young users’ personal information. The Irish regulator has also issued significant fines to other tech giants, including Instagram, WhatsApp, and their owner Meta, over the past year.


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