Indiana’s attorney general on Wednesday sued Chinese app TikTok for misleading users about China’s access to their data and exposing children to adult content, in the first lawsuits against the popular video service.
Todd Rokita, the attorney general, alleged that TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, violated state consumer protection laws by not disclosing the Chinese government’s ability to wiretap sensitive consumer information. His office said in a separate complaint that TikTok misled young users and their parents with its age rating of 12-plus on Apple’s and Google’s app stores, when in fact inappropriate sexual and substance-related content can be easily found and pushed by the company . to children using the app.
US officials have been fighting for more than two years to ban the wildly popular app or force it to change its ownership structure to reduce its ties to China. The app has been swept up in the Biden administration’s push to strengthen US technology supply chains and slow China’s rise as a global technology innovator and exporter.
Indiana is seeking fines of up to $5,000 per violation and has asked a state superior court to order TikTok to end false and misleading claims about data handling and to stop marketing itself as an app suitable for is for young teens.
“TikTok is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the prosecutor’s office said.
TikTok declined to comment on the Indiana lawsuits, but its spokeswoman, Brooke Oberwetter, said “the safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority.”
“We are incorporating youth wellbeing into our policies, limiting features based on age, giving parents tools and resources and continuing to invest in new ways to enjoy content based on age appropriateness or family comfort,” she added.
The Biden administration has been embroiled in negotiations with TikTok for months over national security concerns related to the app’s data collection and possible data transfers to China. Both Republicans and Democrats have called for a ban on the app. Several states have opened investigations into TikTok for privacy and national security violations, while the Transportation Security Administration, military weapons and three states have banned the use of the app on official devices. On Wednesday, the Texas Attorney General ordered government agencies to ban the use of TikTok on all government-issued devices.
In September, UK regulators warned TikTok that it could face up to $29 million in fines for violating new laws protecting children’s privacy. The European Commission has also opened an investigation into TikTok for allegedly sending data from EU citizens to the Chinese government and for targeting ads at minors.
TikTok has pointed to its offices in Los Angeles and Singapore as proof of its independence and has said the Chinese government has never attempted to access data from US users. The company spent more than $4.2 million in the first three quarters of the year lobbying lawmakers and the White House to fend off growing scrutiny.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has also been on a charm offensive to appease critics. He has said that US users’ data would be hosted on servers operated by US cloud computing company Oracle and disputes that the Chinese government has access to that data.
Indiana’s attorney general said those assurances lacked credibility because Chinese law gives the government the authority to demand data from a US subsidiary. TikTok has pledged to eventually remove all “protected” data from US users of TikTok systems, but the suit said it was not clear what qualified as “protected” data.
By not disclosing the risks of China’s entry, the company is defrauding consumers, the lawsuit said. In Europe, TikTok announces that user data can be accessed by individuals outside of Europe, including those in China. Suspicions remain about TikTok’s history of sharing data and tech resources with ByteDance, the attorney general said.
“TikTok has knowingly misled and defrauded consumers in Indiana, and continues to do so,” the complaint read. “If the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party want access to TikTok user data in the US, they can get it.”
The second complaint described TikTok, which is popular with young people, as a “Trojan horse” that lures teens through its marketing as a safe application for young people at least 12 years old, but then subjects them to inappropriate sexual and alcohol and drug addiction. related content. TikTok’s policy statement that there is “rare” or “mild” adult content on the app contradicts the abundance of disturbing content that is easily accessible to young users, the lawsuit said.
Regarding the US government’s investigation, Ms. Oberwetter, TikTok’s spokeswoman, said: “We are confident that we are on track to fully comply with all reasonable US national security concerns and have already made significant progress in implementing of those solutions.
TikTok has introduced a feature that allows parents to link their accounts to their children’s so they can control what their teens see on the app and how much time they spend on it. But even in “Restricted” mode, a feature intended to block certain adult content, sexually explicit content can still reach young users, the complaint said. Many attorneys general are expected to write letters to Apple and Google requesting that their app stores raise the age guideline for TikTok users to at least 17, a person with knowledge of the effort said.
“TikTok is Joe Camel on steroids,” the indictment said.