TikTok quietly changes user terms amid growing legal scrutiny


Parents, schools and even attorneys general have increasingly expressed concerns about how TikTok may be hooking children on the app and serving them inappropriate content. But some lawyers say taking legal action against the company could be more difficult after TikTok quietly changed its terms of service this summer.

In July, TikTok removed rules requiring user disputes to be handled through private arbitration and instead said complaints had to be filed in one of two California courts. While arbitration has long been considered beneficial to businesses, some lawyers have recently discovered how to make it expensive for businesses by filing consumer arbitration claims en masse.

The terms were also changed to suggest that legal action must be taken within one year of alleged harm from use of the app. A timeline had not previously been specified.

The 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 uncover possible irregularities, 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 could move forward. He said the company must face certain product liability claims related to the apps' features.

The judge's decision was significant because tech giants have often shielded themselves from lawsuits by pointing to the First Amendment and laws that protect platforms from being held liable for users' content.

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

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

Roche said he believed TikTok made the term changes in anticipation of a wave of litigation based on the attorney general's investigation and the California lawsuit.

Roche has been finding parents of young TikTok users largely through Facebook ads that ask people to share their claims on a website. (A former crypto lawyer, Mr. Roche give up last year from a law firm he founded after videos appeared online making him appear corrupt; (He has said that he was misled by an adversary in the litigation and that his statements in the videos were spliced ​​​​and taken out of context.)

Leigh Cardinal, a 49-year-old mother from Chico, California, is among Roche's clients. She said her daughter, now 15, “went into a dark space” with anxiety and depression for several years, which coincided with her scrolling through TikTok “for hours.”

When she heard about an ad asking if her family had been harmed by using TikTok and saying she could qualify for up to $10,000, she clicked.

Over the past two years, many of the same states investigating TikTok have also investigated Meta's treatment of young users on its Instagram and Facebook platforms. That case is more advanced. In October, a coalition of 33 attorneys general jointly sued Meta in federal court, alleging that the social media giant had children caught unfairly and teenagers and misled users about the security of their platform.

Meta has said it has worked for years to make online experiences safe and age-appropriate for teens and that the states' complaint “mischaracterizes our work using selective citations and cherry-picked documents.”

Companies have long sent disputes to arbitration to avoid liability through class actions and reach resolutions behind closed doors. But they have been phasing out those requirements after lawyers figured out how to file arbitration claims en masse, which can cost companies millions of dollars in fees for private arbitrators to hear cases and even more so in settlements, said Robert Freund, an advertising and e-commerce lawyer.

“When these big companies are tested to accept the deal they supposedly forced on consumers, they suddenly don't like it if it means they might have to pay more than they thought,” Freund said.

Omri Ben-Shahar, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said he expected TikTok would find it difficult to defend changes to its terms of service in court. “When companies release new terms or just send people an email saying, 'Hey, by the way, there are new terms,' that doesn't work,” he said.

natasha singer contributed reports.

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