TikTok challenges and the intervention of the Italian Data Protection Authority

TikTok remains under the supervision of the Data Protection Authority Supervisor, even after announcing the adoption of measures aimed at blocking the access to users under the age of 13.

The Data Protection Authority had already intervened in December 2020, initiating a proceeding against the well-known platform and complaining above all about the lack of attention in the protection of minors. The Authority highlights strong critical issues, among other things, on how the privacy policy is issued, the transfer of data abroad, the period of data storage and, above all, the compliance with the methods provided to verify the age of the users.

In particular, the Data Protection Authority had noted that the prohibition of signing up to children under 13 years of age could be circumvented simply by indicating a fake date of birth and had asked TikTok to adopt correct methods to verify the age of the users.

Nevertheless, in January 2021 in reported the tragic news of the death of a 10-year-old girl from Palermo who died in the attempt to emulate the absurd Blackout challenge: a challenge that circulates among very young users of the social and that invites them to test their resistance to suffocation by tightening a belt around their neck.

The dramatic event provoked the emergency intervention of the Data Protection Authority, which prohibited TikTok from processing the data of users for whom there is no absolute certainty of age until February 15, 2021.

After the provisional block, TikTok asked all its users to confirm their age in order to continue using the platform.

The company then assured that it would take additional measures to block the access to users under the age of 13, considering the launch of awareness campaigns and the use of artificial intelligence systems for age verification.

Among the security measures announced, it should be included a button to allow users to report other users who appear to be under 13 years old, while age verification technical solutions are still being studied.

However, to this day, TikTok signing-up process remains inadequate and easily circumvented by minors, while videos inciting the participation in lethal challenges continue to circulate on the social media.

It is of April 2021 the news of the death of another 12-year-old from Colorado (USA), who died in the attempt of filming his suffocation in order to publish it on TikTok.

The question therefore is whether, in general, the adoption of more sophisticated technical measures by social networks can really be sufficient to adequately protect minors or whether, to achieve this goal, are necessary wide-ranging interventions involving the entire audience of web users.

In this regard, the Vice President of the Data Protection Authority recently stated that “Between children who are born in a connected and social world, but with little or no awareness of the risks of the network, and parents and teachers to whom no one has been able or have so far been able to explain how to educate children to the conscious use of such technologies, there is really a long way to go.”[1]

[1] The deadly challenges on TikTok and the tied hands of the law. The intervention of Ginevra Cerrina Feroni, Vice President of the Data Protection Supervisor (Il Messaggero, 17 March 2021) published on https://www.garanteprivacy.it