In recent months, TikTok has been accused of aggressive data harvesting and poor security issues. A number of governments have now taken a view that the video sharing platform represents an unacceptable risk that enables Chinese government surveillance. In March, UK government ministers were banned from using the TikTok app on their work phones. The United States, Canada, Belgium and India have all adopted similar measures.
On 4th April 2023, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a £12.7 million fine to TikTok for a number of breaches of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR), including failing to use children’s personal data lawfully. This follows a Notice of Intent issued in September 2022.
Article 8(1) of the UK GDPR states the general rule that when a Data Controller is offering an “information society services” (e.g. social media apps and gaming sites) directly to a child, and it is relying on consent as its lawful basis for processing, only a child aged 13 or over is able provide their own consent. For a child under 13, the Data Controller must seek consent from whoever holds parental responsibility. Article 8(2) further states:
“The controller shall make reasonable efforts to verify in such cases that consent is given or authorised by the holder of parental responsibility over the child, taking into consideration available technology.”
In issuing the fine, the ICO said TikTok had failed to comply with Article 8 even though it ought to have been aware that under 13s were using its platform. It also failed to carry out adequate checks to identify and remove underage children from its platform. The ICO estimates up to 1.4 million UK children under 13 were allowed to use the platform in 2020, despite TikTok’s own rules not allowing children of that age to create an account.
The ICO investigation found that a concern was raised internally with some senior employees about children under 13 using the platform and not being removed. In the ICO’s view TikTok did not respond adequately. John Edwards, the Information Commissioner, said:
“TikTok should have known better. TikTok should have done better. Our £12.7m fine reflects the serious impact their failures may have had. They did not do enough to check who was using their platform or take sufficient action to remove the underage children that were using their platform.”
In addition to Article 8 the ICO found that, between May 2018 and July 2020, TikTok breached the following provisions of the UK GDPR:
- Article 13 and 14 (Privacy Notices) – Failing to provide proper information to people using the platform about how their data is collected, used, and shared in a way that is easy to understand. Without that information, users of the platform, in particular children, were unlikely to be able to make informed choices about whether and how to engage with it; and
- Article 5(1)(a) (The First DP Principle) – Failing to ensure that the personal data belonging to its UK users was processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner.
Notice of Intent
It is noticeable that this fine is less than half the amount (£27 million) in the Notice of Intent. The ICO said that it had taken into consideration the representations from TikTok and decided not to pursue its provisional finding relating to the unlawful use of Special Category Data. Consequently this potential infringement was not included in the final amount of the fine.
We have been here before! In 2018 British Airways was issued with a Notice of Intent in the sum of £183 Million but the actual fine in July 2020 was for £20 million. Marriott International Inc was fined £18.4 million in 2020; much lower than the £99 million set out in the original notice. Some commentators have argued that the fact that fines are often substantially reduced (from the notice to the final amount) suggests the ICO’s methodology is flawed.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said:
“While we disagree with the ICO’s decision, which relates to May 2018 to July 2020, we are pleased that the fine announced today has been reduced to under half the amount proposed last year. We will continue to review the decision and are considering next steps.”
We suspect TikTok will appeal the fine and put pressure on the ICO to think about whether it has the appetite for a costly appeal process. The ICO’s record in such cases is not great. In 2021 it fined the Cabinet Office £500,000 for disclosing postal addresses of the 2020 New Year Honours recipients. The Cabinet Office appealed against the amount of the fine arguing it was “wholly disproportionate”. A year later, the ICO agreed to a reduction to £50,000. Recently an appeal against the ICO’s fine of £1.35 million issued to Easylife Ltd was withdrawn, after the parties reached an agreement whereby the amount of the fine was reduced to £250,000.
The Children’s Code
Since the conclusion of the ICO’s investigation of TikTok, the regulator has published the Children’s Code. This is a statutory code of practice aimed at online services, such as apps, gaming platforms and web and social media sites, that are likely to be accessed by children. The code sets out 15 standards to ensure children have the best possible experience of online services. In September, whilst marking the Code’s anniversary, the ICO said:
“Organisations providing online services and products likely to be accessed by children must abide by the code or face tough sanctions. The ICO are currently looking into how over 50 different online services are conforming with the code, with four ongoing investigations. We have also audited nine organisations and are currently assessing their outcomes.”
With increasing concern about security and data handling practices across the tech sector (see the recent fines imposed by the Ireland’s Data Protection Commission on Meta) it is likely that more ICO regulatory action will follow.
This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop.