Filing two lawsuits in a state superior court, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) argued that everything including people’s interests and their facial features are potentially accessible to the Chinese government. The suits claim that TikTok and its Beijing-based owner, tech giant ByteDance, have deceived consumers about their data security and suitability for young teens.
One suit alleges that China could use the vast amount of American consumer information tracked and collected by TikTok in the name of its own national security or “to spy on, blackmail, and coerce” users. The suit echoed long-standing U.S. government concerns that China could access American user data through ByteDance.
As Washington wavers on TikTok, Beijing exerts control
TikTok and ByteDance have also misled consumers about how safe the app is for children, Rokita’s office claims in the second lawsuit. The state’s court filings dispute the app’s 12-plus age rating and “infrequent/mild” designation for content about sex, drugs, alcohol and violence in Apple’s App Store.
Not only are entire corners of TikTok dedicated to trends and songs that involve sexual content, the suit argues, but the app’s autocomplete search feature and video-suggestion algorithm mean explicit clips are often recommended to users who may not even search for them. Sexually explicit content is banned by TikTok, but users often change one letter in a word to get around those rules.
“At the very least, the company owes consumers the truth about the age-appropriateness of its content and the insecurity of the data it collects on users. We hope these lawsuits force TikTok to come clean and change its ways,” Rotika said in a statement.
Home to millions of users, viral clips and a culture-shifting algorithm, the platform has captured two-thirds of American teens, a quarter of whom say they’re on the video-sharing app “almost constantly,” a Pew Research study found in August. The app’s unique “For You” algorithm learns a user’s tastes and then feeds video after video, sometimes with an accuracy that stuns users.
Why lawmakers are not buying assurances from TikTok on China
As the app has become a cultural phenomenon, U.S. policymakers have raised concerns about privacy and data, children’s online safety and national security. TikTok executives have said the app does not share information with the Chinese government and have attempted to quell fears from members of Congress about national security and transparency.
The company has said the data it collects is not stored in China and is not subject to Chinese law, claims disputed by Indiana in the lawsuit.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday that “youth well-being” was part of TikTok’s policies, including age-limited features and tools for parents to control what children view.
“While we don’t comment on pending litigation, the safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority,” Oberwetter said. “We are also confident that we’re on a path in our negotiations with the U.S. Government to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns, and we have already made significant strides toward implementing those solutions.”
The suits came amid steps by other states to limit TikTok’s access to their data. Also on Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered state agencies to ban their employees from using the app on any government-issued devices. That followed similar directives last week in South Dakota and Maryland.
A TikTok spokesperson told The Post this week that state officials’ concerns “are largely fueled by misinformation about our company.”
The growing pushback against TikTok has included competition from fellow social media behemoths. Meta, which owns TikTok rivals Facebook and Instagram, hired a major Republican consulting firm to conduct a campaign to turn public opinion against TikTok, partly in a bid to distract from scrutiny of Meta, The Post found in March.
Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok
Indiana’s lawsuit argues that TikTok “routinely exposes” consumers’ data “to access and exploitation by the Chinese Government and Communist Party,” partly through ByteDance’s ownership of the app, and misleads users about how safe their data is. Rokita’s office argues that TikTok’s assurances that data is not being sent to China are false, saying the data the app collects can be accessed by people and companies subject to Chinese law, including ByteDance.
“While TikTok vacuums up reams of this highly sensitive and personal information about Indiana consumers, it deceives and misleads them about the risks the app routinely poses to their data,” the state’s complaint says, later concluding: “TikTok is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
At the same time, TikTok, which requires users to enter an age of 13 or older to create an account, has short videos on everything including hallucinogenic mushrooms and bondage. The lawsuit cites lyrics of various popular songs, such as Cardi B’s hit “WAP” and dance moves including twerking as evidence that the platform contains content inappropriate for young teens.
Just typing the first two letters of certain TikTok trends will bring up search prompts for explicit content, the suit notes, often offering videos categorized under tags that are misspelled to avoid triggering the app’s content bans. Further, a mode in the app meant to restrict younger users from seeing vulgar videos is ineffective, still serving sexual content in response to searches, the Indiana attorney general’s office argues.
“TikTok intentionally falsely reports the frequency of sexual content, nudity, and mature/suggestive themes on the TikTok platform to the App Store because TikTok wants to keep and increase young users’ engagement with the TikTok platform,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit also raises concerns about how the platform polices videos related to child pornography, rape fantasies and abuse. Citing a Forbes investigation, the state alleges that users get around TikTok’s policy banning sexual or exploitative content by uploading content showing child sex abuse to private accounts and then distributing the log-in information so others can log in and view it.
On its website, TikTok says it is “deeply committed to ensuring the safety of minors” and prohibits any videos relating to child sexual exploitation or endangerment. Such videos are “subject to intervention from law enforcement,” the company says.
Drew Harwell contributed to this report.