Indiana’s attorney general on Wednesday sued the Chinese-owned app TikTok for deceiving users about China’s access to their data and for exposing children to mature content, in the first state lawsuits against the popular video service.
Todd Rokita, the attorney general, claimed that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, violated state consumer protection laws by failing to disclose the Chinese government’s ability to tap sensitive consumer information. His office said in a separate complaint that TikTok deceived young users and their parents with its age rating of 12-plus in Apple’s and Google’s app stores, when in fact inappropriate sexual and substance-related content can be easily found and are pushed by the company to children using the app.
U.S. officials have been fighting for more than two years to ban the wildly popular app or force it to change its ownership structure to reduce its affiliations with China. The app has been swept into the Biden administration’s push to strengthen U.S. tech supply chains and to slow China’s rise as a global innovator and exporter of technology.
Indiana is seeking penalties of up to $5,000 per violation and has asked a state Superior Court to order TikTok to stop false and misleading claims about its handling of data and to stop marketing itself as an app appropriate for young teenagers.
“TikTok is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the attorney general’s office said.
TikTok declined to comment on the Indiana lawsuits, but its spokeswoman, Brooke Oberwetter, said that “the safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority.”
“We build youth well-being into our policies, limit features by age, empower parents with tools and resources, and continue to invest in new ways to enjoy content based on age-appropriateness or family comfort,” she added.
The Biden administration has been locked in negotiations with TikTok for months over national security concerns related to the app’s data collection and potential data transfers to China. Both Republicans and Democrats have called for a ban of the app. Several states have opened investigations into TikTok over privacy and national security violations, while the Transportation Security Administration, military arms and three states have banned the app’s use on official devices. On Wednesday, the attorney general of Texas ordered state agencies to ban the use of TikTok on all government-issued devices.
In September, British regulators warned TikTok that it could face up to $29 million in fines for violating new laws protecting children’s privacy. The European Commission has also opened investigations into TikTok for allegedly sending the data of E.U. citizens to the Chinese government and for targeting ads to minors.
TikTok has pointed to its offices in Los Angeles and Singapore as proof of its independence and has said the Chinese government has never tried to access data of U.S. users. The company spent more than $4.2 million in the first three quarters of the year lobbying lawmakers and the White House to fend off growing scrutiny.
TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, has also been on a charm offensive to assuage critics. He has said that the data of U.S. users would be hosted on servers controlled by the American cloud computing company Oracle and disputes that the Chinese government could access that data.
Indiana’s attorney general said those assurances weren’t credible because Chinese law gives the government the authority to demand data from a U.S. affiliate. TikTok has promised to eventually delete all “protected” data of U.S. users from TikTok systems, but the suit said it was not clear what qualified as “protected” data.
By not disclosing the risks of China’s access, the company is deceiving consumers, the suit said. In Europe, TikTok discloses that user data can be accessed by individuals outside Europe, including those in China. Suspicions remain about TikTok’s history of sharing data and engineering resources with ByteDance, the attorney general said.
“TikTok knowingly misled and deceived Indiana consumers, and continues to do so,” the complaint said. “If the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party want access to TikTok’s U.S. user data, they can get it.”
The second complaint described TikTok, which is popular for young people, as a “Trojan Horse” that lures teenagers through its marketing as a safe application for those at least 12 years of age, but then subjects them to inappropriate sexual and alcohol- and drug-related content. TikTok’s policy statement that there is “infrequent” or “mild” mature content on the app belies the abundance of troubling content that is easily accessible to young users, the suit said.
In regard to the U.S. government’s investigation, Ms. Oberwetter, TikTok’s spokeswoman, said, “We are confident that we’re on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns and have already made significant strides toward implementing those solutions.”
TikTok has introduced a feature that allows parents to link their account to their children’s, so they can control what their teenagers see on the app and how much time they’re spending on it. But even on “Restricted” mode, a feature intended to block certain mature content, sexually explicit content can still reach young users, the complaint said. Many state attorneys general are expected to write letters to Apple and Google to request that their app stores raise the age guidance for users of TikTok to be at least 17, said a person with knowledge of the efforts.
“TikTok is Joe Camel on steroids,” the complaint said.