Data regulator hones in on TikTok as it makes child safety top priority for 2020

ICO has been investigating TikTok over data handling concerns Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

Protecting children’s privacy will be top priority for the UK’s data regulator in 2020 amid increased concern about platforms such as TikTok, the Information Commissioner has said.

The video-sharing app has been under the spotlight since exploding in popularity among young people, with a number of emerging issues including how it handles data, misuse of paid virtual gifts and early anti-bullying efforts that reduced the visibility of disabled and overweight users.

It agreed to pay a 5.7 million dollar (£4.3 million) settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission in February and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been carrying out its own investigation, which is expected to be complete in the coming months.

“We continue to investigate TikTok, we haven’t completed our action there,” Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the PA news agency.

“There are many, many users of TikTok in the UK, and we are concerned the company is compiling and disclosing data and viewing data … and selling that data to third party advertisers.

“We’re also concerned with the openness of the messaging system on TikTok.

“TikTok is co-operating with us in the investigation, but we’re not complete yet.”

The ICO submitted the final version of its Age Appropriate Design Code of Practice, dubbed the Kids Code, to the Government before the general election, detailing proposed standards to keep internet companies in check over child safety.

Ms Denham says parents are worried about a number of dangers, including profiling, “being nudged in certain directions” in video games, as well as access to pornographic sites.

“What we’re trying to do is not keep kids off the internet,” Ms Denham explained to PA.

“We want to protect them on the internet, so that they can pursue education and entertainment on the internet, and rightly so, but at an age appropriate way.

“We want to protect kids today, we want to protect kids in the future, because generations of them are growing up now in the always connected world.

“I think kids today, those concepts of online and offline are so blurred as to be almost meaningless to them, so my point is we’re regulating in a whole new world when it comes to kids.”

Earlier this month, TikTok admitted it was “wrong” to reduce the visibility of disabled, overweight and LGBTQ+ users on its platform in its early days in an effort to tackle bullying.

German site obtained moderation guidelines for the Chinese-owned app, apparently aimed at protecting those it deemed “highly vulnerable to cyberbullying” if exposed to a wide audience.

The platform recently made changes to its rules on sending and receiving paid virtual gifts, increasing the minimum age to 18, following reports of young people being pressured by influencers to pay them in exchange for things like their personal phone number.