Consumer groups from 15 European Union countries including France have signed a complaint against Chinese video-sharing application TikTok, urging authorities to take action on issues concerning protection of minors after a series of incidents linked to the service, including the death of a 10-year-old in Italy.
Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok has been growing in popularity around the world, especially with teenagers, but also became the target of a complaint over its apparent noncompliance with European consumer and privacy rules on Tuesday.
Filed by European consumer organisation BEUC along with consumer advocates of 15 European Union member states, including UFC-Que Choisir of France, the complaint accuses ByteDance, the company that operates TikTok, of numerous offences.
"In order to protect the rights and safety of users, especially young users," the groups have "sent an alert with the European Commission and national consumer protection authorities... for misleading and unfair commercial practices," France's UFC-Que Choisir consumer rights group said in a statement.
These include failing to protect children from hidden advertising and inappropriate content, as well as violating EU rules on the use of content and personal data.
"Young consumers and older consumers need to be able to benefit from these services," says BEUC deputy director general Ursula Pachl of social networks in general, adding that estimates show up to half of teenagers in many European countries use TikTok on a regular basis.
"They should be able to do so and enjoy themselves in a safe place, so we think TikTok should respect European protections so that users' rights are respected and they are in a safe place when they enjoy themselves."
The platform accepts users aged 13 and up, but critics say there is little preventing younger users from creating an account. In France, 45 percent of French children under 13 have reported using the app, UFC-Que Choisir says.
An investigation by France 2 Television in January demonstrated how easy it was to sign onto TikTok claiming to be 13 years old and within minutes be exposed to highly sexualised content, including incitements to prostitution.
Criticism lead TikTok to tighten its confidentiality parameters for users aged 13 to 15 in mid-January.
But in late January, Italian authorities blocked access to users whose age was not guaranteed after a 10-year-old girl in Sicily died after taking part in a "blackout challenge", by which users voluntarily strangle themselves to get a high.
"In our legislative framework, there is a particular need for due diligence when it comes to teenagers and children, and that is something that TikTok in our opinion does not respect," Pachl said, adding protecting children and teenagers online has become more important since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Since lockdowns and restrictions have been put in place, there is much more use of social media and e-commerce by consumers, and young consumers are much more on social media platforms compared with the year before."
The complaint cites a range of issues, including TikTok's terms and conditions of use for the videos and other content users post on the platform.
"Everything you put on the platform belongs to them," Pachl says. "They can use, modify and share it any way they want," a policy that UFC-Que Choisir says violates EU consumer protection laws.
Consumer advocates also say the law obliges TikTok to make a clearer distinction between advertising and other content when it comes to functions such as hashtag challenges, by which users become advertisers for a product without realising it.
BEUC also noted a virtual currency for purchasing gifts for TikTok celebrities contains unfair terms and misleading practices, intended to make users forget they are spending real money.
"People and particularly young consumers don't understand that these are marketing practices," Pachl says.
The group also said it was sending information to national regulators investigating the platform for possible violations of personal data laws.
"TikTok does not clearly inform users about its gathering of personal data, its use and destination, contrary to obligations of the GDPR," the EU's General Data Protection Regulation.
Also misleading are the company's practices for processing personal data of users, BEUC said.
TikTok says ready to discuss
"We're always open to hearing how we can improve, and we have contacted BEUC as we would welcome a meeting to listen to their concerns," a TikTok spokeperson told Reuters agency.
The TikTok website also contains a section on safe use of the platform.