More than 20 plaintiffs, many of whom are underaged and therefore represented by their legal guardians, are listed in a new class-action lawsuit against TikTok, which is owned by a Beijing-based tech company called ByteDance. NPR, who was first to report on the class-action, pointed out that this is the merging of multiple “separate but similar” federal lawsuits that were filed over the past year.
These American families believe that the executives behind TikTok equipped the app with China-based surveillance software that is unknown to its users — and transfers “vast quantities” of private data and content to Chinese servers. Furthermore, they believe that gives the accessors of said data the ability to “identify, profile, and track the physical and digital location and activities” of U.S. users.
The plaintiffs specifically call attention to private draft videos — or early versions of posts that were never published or saved — claiming that the app has also “surreptitiously taken” these clips without notice or consent. They further argue that by secretly obtaining this data and information, TikTok unfairly profits from them by attracting more consumers through targeted advertising and/or increasing consumer demand with improvements to the app technology.
Last year — as accusations had begun to generate noise — TikTok consultants shared that they found “no indication that the Chinese government accessed TikTok users’ data” in their review of TikTok’s computer code between July and October of 2019. The app then issued a public statement, saying: “We store all TikTok U.S. user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.”
However, the plaintiffs in the 2020 class-action suit argue that TikTok’s public statement was “carefully couched in the present tense and studiously avoids mentions of past practices.” They point out that TikTok never said that data was not transferred to China — only that it was not stored in China.
ByteDance is a company that uses artificial intelligence “powered by algorithms that ‘learn’ each user’s interests and preferences through repeat interaction,” the complaint points out before mentioning that ByteDance has looked to grow in overseas markets — including the U.S. — in recent years. ByteDance arguably mimicked American app Musical.ly, which laid the groundwork for today’s TikTok, when it launched its own app called Douyin in 2016. ByteDance eventually bought Musical.ly in 2017 — but only after introducing an English language version of the Douyin app under the name TikTok.
A representative from TikTok did not immediately reply when Rolling Stone reached out for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
According to the complaint documents, the plaintiffs are requesting, among a lengthy list of possible resolutions, that TikTok be urged to refrain from transmitting user data and content to China, as well as any other locations or facilities that China could access. They say draft videos, for one, should not be accessed by anyone but the user without advance notice and written consent. They also believe that TikTok shouldn’t be able to take “physical/digital location tracking data, device ID data, [and] personally identifiable data.” The latter seems particularly unlikely, considering what’s required to run a social media-centric app.