An assortment of lawsuits claiming that popular social media app TikTok violates children’s privacy laws have merged into a major legal action.
According to National Public Radio, twenty separate but similar lawsuits—all filed over the past year and a half—have coalesced into a single suit seeking class action certification. The prospective class is comprised of dozens of children and their parents.
Most of the litigants are from California and Illinois. They say that TikTok broke digital privacy laws by failing to obtain written consent before gathering users’ data.
The kind of data obtained by TikTok allegedly includes biometric data, as well as geographical and personal information, such as children’s exact locations and the sorts of ideological positions they have espoused on the app.
On Tuesday, notes NPR, a panel of federal judges approved the lawsuit to proceed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, where TikTok maintains its U.S. offices. The plaintiffs plan to ask Judge John Z. Lee to expand the suit into a class action.
If the families’ request is approved, millions of Americans may be eligible to stake a claim against the China-based social media company.
National Public Radio reports that, despite TikTok’s insistence that it never broke any privacy-related laws, the company is under immense pressure on an astounding number of fronts. Along with the impending legal action, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok from the United States. Trump’s threats largely relate to the fact that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, due to its alleged ties with the Chinese Communist Party, or CPP.
TikTok, adds Vox.com, has purportedly cooperated with the CCP to spread propaganda and censor content offensive to the Party.
Furthermore, because ByteDance is based in China, it is subject to that country’s data laws, too—and the Chinese Communist Party requires companies to comply with any intelligence requests. That means that TikTok users’ data could, conceivably, be obtained by the Chinese government and it utilized for its own purposes.
“The Chinese government has a history of gaining control over nodes in the information system,” Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, told Vox. “They don’t always mobilize them right away to harm freedom of expression, until something threatening happens and then they do.
“It seems clear TikTok is censoring information related to the Hong Kong protests, but at the same time, even if it’s not happening that much now, it’s really only a matter of time before it does,” Cook said.
Nevertheless, TikTok has maintained that it does not capture children’s sensitive information, including biometric data—it also says that whatever data the company does have is not send to Beijing. But NPR observes that TikTok does, at the very least, track users’ “precise locations,” and may have data which could ascertain individual users’ political ideologies, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.
Even if TikTok does not directly transfer information to the Chinese government, it shares user information with third-party companies that do cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies.
Weibell, though, says that the lawsuit is—more than anything else—building off recent anti-China sentiment, likely derived from the Trump administration’s foreign policy and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“The present lawsuit is based on (and quotes) the same anti-Chinese rhetoric, conjecture, supposition, and innuendo that originated with these political and competitive attacks,” Weibell said.
Somewhat worryingly, however, TikTok’s legal team has said they would be within their rights to transfer data to the Chinese government, and that they would not be breaking any laws if they did.
While TikTok has requested the new, unified lawsuit be dismissed, it could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if litigants’ claims are proven true.
Microsoft, adds NPR, is currently in talks to acquire TikTok. If Microsoft manages to purchase the company from ByteDance, user information would, at least, remain within the United States.