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.
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.