Molly Franklin Associate Editor Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
TikTok, a widely popular app Chinese app where anyone can make a short 15 second video and become a TikTok star overnight, has been in the news a lot lately. Today, the future of TikTok being available in America is unknown due to President Trump’s executive order from August 6th, targeting both TikTok and another Chinese social media app, WeChat. Both of these apps are potentially being blocked due to the Trump administration’s national security bans. Not only will this ban effect TikTok’s millions of users, but it will also affect many American companies and individuals who advertise with the platform.
The history of TikTok
TikTok did not become a sensation overnight as its stars do. TikTok has been around since 2014, as it was first an app called Musical.ly, which was created by Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Luya Yang. In November of 2017, Music.ly was bought for around 1 billion dollars by a Beijing tech company ByteDance. ByteDance had previously created an app called Douyin, which was only available in China at the time. Douyin, an app similar to Musical.ly, was then renamed “TikTok” for a better international appeal. When ByteDance bought Musical.ly, they combined the two apps into TikTok, and Musical.ly’s users’ profiles were automatically registered as TikTok users. By 2019, TikTok already had over 500 million active users and was one of the top downloaded apps in the Apple store and Android stores. The popularity of TikTok can be attributed to a number of factors, but already having a user base on Musical.ly is one of the reasons behind its metoeric rise. To aid its growth, TikTok uses hashtags and challenges for its community engagement. It has celebrities from Jimmy Fallon to Gorden Ramsey to Cardi B, covering its user base, although it has been named the “generation Z” app. TikTok not only has celebrities, but normal people also get “TikTok” famous and have become stars. Today, stars like Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae are often featured as talk show guests, have signed talent agencies, and have created a real fan base on other social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram thanks to their TikTok fame.
TikTok’s bad side
TikTok has had some other very serious legal issues in the past. In February of 2019, Child Privacy Advocates filed a complaint against TikTok’s previous App form Musical.ly with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) claiming that TikTok violated the Children’s Online Protection Act (“COPPA”). On February 27, 2019, TikTok settled this lawsuit by paying a 5.7 million dollar fine to the FTC. COPPA is an FTC Rule that “imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age, and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child 13 years of age”. TikTok is not the only major platform that has been fined by the FTC for this, however this was the largest fine the FTC has ever been paid.
Although TikTok settled this complaint in 2019, they have still received criticism for not doing enough to protect its child users. On May 14, 2020, another complaint was filed alleging that TikTok had violated the terms of the consent decree and COPPA again, which they agreed to in the Musical.ly settlement. TikTok was supposed to destroy all personal data for its users who were under the age of 13, but the complaint alleges that TikTok still has many users under the age of 13, and many of these users also have videos on the application. This issue is that TikTok has not gotten parental consent for these underage users, and the complaint alleges that TikTok hasn’t made a reasonable effort to comply with the COPPA Rule. Since this complaint, TikTok has made an effort to remove videos that violated its community guidelines, including those made by users under the age of 13.
The future of TikTok
Although TikTok seems to have escaped its legal issues with the FTC, the future of TikTok in America is still unclear. President Trump initially published an executive order declaring that TikTok would be banned for new user downloads on September 20, 2020. However, on September 27, 2020 a judge blocked the order and granted TikTok’s request for a temporary injunction. Tostay in America, TikTok has looked into selling part of its ownership to an American company. Oracle and Walmart are currently in negotiations to buy a combined 20% stake in TikTok, which seems to have satisfied the Trump administration’s concerns. The deal is not a full sale of TikTok, and a new company TikTok Global will be created. However, the final TikTok deal has not finalized and likely will not be until after the 2020 election.
TikTok allows ordinary people to go viral, and for now, it seems like TikTok has been saved. However, like the rest of 2020, you never know what will happen.