Tuesday, March 5

TikTok quietly changes terms of service amid growing legal scrutiny

Parents, schools and even attorneys general are increasingly concerned about how TikTok could lure children to the app and serve them inappropriate content. But some lawyers say it could be harder to take legal action against the company after TikTok quietly changed its terms of service in the United States this summer.

In July, TikTok removed rules that required user disputes to be handled through private arbitration and instead said claims must be filed in one of two California courts. While arbitration has long been considered beneficial for businesses, some lawyers have recently figured out how to make it costly for businesses by bundling consumer arbitration claims.

The terms have also been changed to suggest that legal action must be filed within one year of the alleged harm resulting from use of the app. Previously, no timetable had been specified.

These changes come as the possibility of people taking legal action against TikTok increases.

A coalition of more than 40 state attorneys general is investigating the social media giant’s treatment of young users. The bipartisan investigation, announced last year and led by Tennessee and Colorado, seeks to determine whether the company engaged in unfair and deceptive conduct that harmed the mental health of children and adolescents.

These types of investigations, if they reveal possible wrongdoing, can lead to government and consumer lawsuits.

Separately, a federal judge in California ruled last month that a case involving hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of young people against the owners of Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat can move forward. She said the company faces some product liability claims related to app features.

The judge’s ruling was significant because tech giants have often protected themselves from lawsuits by invoking the First Amendment and laws that shield platforms from liability for user content.

TikTok did not respond to requests for comment. It has previously said it has “industry-leading protections for young people,” including some parental controls and suggested limits on screen time.

Kyle Roche, an attorney who, along with another lawyer, represents more than 1,000 guardians and minors alleging a range of harms related to the use of TikTok, sent a letter to the company on Tuesday challenging the updated terms. He said his clients were minors and could not accept the changes and that he intended to refer the disputes to arbitration unless they could resolve their claims amicably.

Mr. Roche said he believed TikTok had changed the term in anticipation of a wave of litigation based on the attorney general’s investigation and the California lawsuit.

Mr. Roche found parents of young TikTok users largely through Facebook ads that ask people to share their affirmations on a website. (A former crypto lawyer, Mr. Roche resigned last year from a law firm he founded after videos surfaced online that made him appear corrupt; he said he had been framed by an adversary in court and that his statements in the videos were mixed up and taken out of context.)

Leigh Cardinal, a 49-year-old mother living in Chico, Calif., is one of Mr. Roche’s clients. She told her now 15-year-old daughter “that she had entered a dark space” suffering from anxiety and depression for several years, which coincided with her scrolling through TikTok “for hours.”

When she caught wind of an ad asking if her family had been harmed by using TikTok and saying they could be eligible for up to $10,000, she clicked.

Over the past two years, many of the states investigating TikTok have also investigated Meta’s treatment of young users on its Instagram and Facebook platforms. This matter is more advanced. In October, a coalition of 33 attorneys general sued Meta in federal court, claiming the social media giant unfairly exposed children and teens and misled users about the safety of its platform.

Meta said it has worked for years to make online experiences safe and age-appropriate for teens and that the states’ complaint “misrepresents our work through the use of selective citations and cherry-picked materials.”

Companies have long submitted their disputes to arbitration to avoid liability in class actions and reach resolutions behind closed doors. But they abandoned those requirements after lawyers figured out how to file mass arbitration demands, which can cost companies millions of dollars in fees for private arbitrators to hear cases and even more for settlements, a said Robert Freund, advertising and e-commerce specialist. lawyer.

“When these big companies are put to the test and have to accept the deal they have arguably forced on consumers, they suddenly don’t like that it means they might have to pay more than they thought.” , said Mr. Freund.

Omri Ben-Shahar, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said he expected TikTok to have difficulty defending changes to its terms of service in court. “When companies post new terms or just send people an email saying, ‘Hey, by the way, there are new terms,’ it doesn’t work,” he said.

Natacha Singer reports contributed.