Sarah Nelson, MJLST Staffer
On November 15, 2021, TikTok users received the following notification within the app: “Class Action Settlement Notice: U.S. residents who used Tik Tok before 01 OCT 2021 may be eligible for a class settlement payment – visit https://www.TikTokDataPrivacySettlement.com for details.” The notification was immediately met with skepticism, with users taking to Twitter and TikTok itself to joke about how the notification was likely a scam. However, for those familiar with TikTok’s litigation track record on data privacy, this settlement does not come as a surprise. Specifically, in 2019, TikTok – then known as Musical.ly – settled with the Federal Trade Commission over alleged violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act for $5.7 million. This new settlement is notable for the size of the payout and for what it tells us about the current state of data privacy and biometric data law in the United States.
Allegations in the Class Action
21 federal lawsuits against TikTok were consolidated into one class action to be overseen by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. All of the named plaintiffs in the class action are from either Illinois or California and many are minors. The class action comprises two classes – one class covers TikTok users nationwide and the other only includes Tik Tok users who are residents of Illinois.
In the suit, plaintiffs allege TikTok improperly used their personal data. This improper use includes accusations that TikTok, without consent, shared consumer data with third parties. These third parties allegedly include companies based in China, as well as well-known companies in the United States like Google and Facebook. The class action also accuses TikTok of unlawfully using facial recognition technology and of harvesting data from draft videos – videos that users made but never officially posted. Finally, plaintiffs allege TikTok actively took steps to conceal these practices.
What State and Federal Laws Were Allegedly Violated?
On the federal law level, plaintiffs allege TikTok violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). As the name suggests, the CFAA was enacted to combat computer fraud and prohibits accessing “protected computers” in the absence of authorization or beyond the scope of authorization. Here, the plaintiff-users allege TikTok went beyond the scope of authorization by secretly transmitting personal data, “including User/Device Identifiers, biometric identifiers and information, and Private Videos and Private Video Images never intended for public consumption.” As for the VPPA, the count alleges the Act was violated when TikTok gave “personally identifiable information” to Facebook and Google. TikTok allegedly provided Facebook and Google with information about what videos a TikTok user had watched and liked, and what TikTok content creators a user had followed.
On the state level, the entire class alleged violations of the California Comprehensive Data Access and Fraud Act and a Violation of the Right to Privacy under the California Constitution. Interestingly, the plaintiffs within the Illinois subclasswere able to allege violations under the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). Under the BIPA, before collecting user biometric information, companies must inform the consumer in writing that the information is being collected and why. The company must also say how long the information will be stored and get the consumer to sign off on the collection. The complaint alleges TikTok did not provide the required notice or receive the required written consent.
Additionally, plaintiffs allege intrusion upon seclusion, unjust enrichment, and violation of both a California unfair competition law and a California false advertising law.
In settling the class action, TikTok denies any wrongdoing and maintains that this settlement is only to avoid the cost of further litigation. TikTok gave the following statement to the outlet Insider: “While we disagree with the assertions, we are pleased to have reached a settlement agreement that allows us to move forward and continue building a safe and joyful experience for the TikTok community.”
Terms of the Settlement
To be eligible for a settlement payment, a TikTok user must be a United States resident and must have used the app prior to October of 2021. If an individual meets these criteria, they must submit a claim before March 1, 2022. 89 million usersare estimated to be eligible to receive payment. However, members of the Illinois subclass are eligible to receive six shares of the settlement, as compared to the one share the nationwide class is eligible for. This difference is due to the added protection the Illinois subclass has from BIPA.
In addition to the payout, the settlement will require TikTok to revise its practices. Under the agreed upon settlement reforms, TikTok will no longer mine data from draft videos, collect user biometric data unless specified in the user agreement, or use GPS data to track user location unless specified in the user agreement. TikTok also said they would no longer send or store user data outside of the United States.
All of the above settlement terms are subject to final approval by the U.S. District Judge.
The lawyers representing TikTok users remarked that this settlement was “among the largest privacy-related payouts in history.” And, as noted by NPR, this settlement is similar to the one agreed to by Facebook in 2020 for $650 million. It is possible the size of these settlements will contribute to technology companies preemptively searching out and ceasing practices that may be privacy violative
It is also worth noting the added protection extended to residents of Illinois because of BIPA and its private right of actionthat can be utilized even where there has not been a data breach.
Users of the TikTok app often muse about how amazingly curated their “For You Page” – the videos that appear when you open the app and scroll without doing any particular search – seem to be. For this reason, even with potential privacy concerns, the app is hard to give up. Hopefully, users can rest a bit easier now knowing TikTok has agreed to the settlement reforms.