When Vine was shut down a few years ago people wondered which app company would be the first to make a successful replacement. The social media app allowed users to create and publish six second videos within the platform. Acting like Instagram, before Instagram offered video, the app was hugely popular among young people around the world. Vine died just a couple of years ago, and since then the video app Tik Tok has managed to garner a massive, cult-like user base. Unfortunately for the app, most of that user base is children. Now, the company behind Tik Tok is being fined for illegally harvesting data from children.
The parent company of Tik Tok is Chinese-company ByteDance, which is worth an estimated $75 billion. When ByteDance purchased Musical.ly in 2017 it had big plans for what it would do with social media apps. Musical.ly is a social app that lets users create and share videos of themselves singing along to popular songs. Since the user base is mostly popular among children, this creates a danger zone when it comes to data mining. ByteDance merged Musical.ly with Tik Tok back in August to create a larger platform that would let people create and share videos within the app. By merging with Tik Tok, this took Musical.ly from an app focused on music to something similar to what Vine used to be; a creative platform for short-form video content.
To create an account on the app, users are asked to share information like their email, name, and age. Users also must fill out a short bio in order to open the account. The app has seen a record-breaking amount of downloads around the world, with around 40% of its user-base outside of China, according to CNN Business. Both Musical.ly and Tik Tok have seen millions of downloads in just a few short years. Which something just about any social media user is aware of as the short videos are nearly inescapable.
The FTC holds strong regulations on what app companies can and cannot do with children. Just a few years ago, Snap, Inc. was under fire for releasing a feature in its app, Snapchat, that would share the exact location of a user to their entire follower base. The feature was quickly changed, allowing users to disable the ability to share their location. Now, Musical.ly is being fined for the very same thing. An FTC investigation led to a shocking report that the company was, at one point, improperly obtaining and sharing data for users under 13.
Thousands of complaints from parents did not persuade the app to stop obtaining and sharing sensitive data about the children that used the app. Now, the FTC is fining the company $5.7 million for its unjust practices. The record-breaking fine was given to ByteDance for illegally collecting data from children under the age of 13. Some of this data included information like email addresses, location, names, and age.
If Tik Tok wishes to continue operating in the future it’s going to have to change its business strategy. The app is mostly popular among teens and kids, but that could change. New features were added to Musical.ly in the wake of complaints from parents. The new version aimed to give parents more control. It would let kids create videos without having to upload them to a public database. Will Tik Tok begin doing that, too?
Julia Sachs is a staff writer at Grit Daily. She covers tech, entrepreneurship and entertainment news and is based in Park City, Utah.