Texas AG Investigates TikTok Over Trafficking Claims, Children's Privacy

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a frequent critic of technology companies, said Friday that he has launched an investigation into whether the social video service TikTok facilitates crimes including sex trafficking, as well as whether it violates children's privacy. 

As part of the investigation, Paxton is demanding that TikTok provide detailed explanations of its content-moderation practices.

Among other queries, Paxton is asking the company how many employees review content, what types of content is flagged, and what steps the company takes when reviewers identify potentially criminal content.

He is also asking TikTok to detail how it determines when particular content should be removed due to violence, nudity, safety concerns or issues related to sex trafficking or labor trafficking.

Paxton is also seeking written documents about content moderation, as well as correspondence between TikTok and law enforcement agencies regarding posts reflecting criminal activity.

The investigation is coming several weeks after Texas Governor Greg Abbott publicly called for legal action against TikTok over claims that it promotes trafficking.

“Cartels in Mexico are using TikTok to advertise to recruit smugglers in Texas,” Abbott said at a press conference.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act broadly protects tech companies from liability based on posts by users, but the law has exceptions -- including one that applies to violations of some state sex trafficking laws.

In 2020, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation placed TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, on a list of “dirty dozen” companies that supposedly facilitated or profited from sex abuse or exploitation. (Others on that 2020 list included Amazon, Google, Twitter, Visa and Netflix.)

The watchdog later said TikTok had implemented several recommendations aimed at improving minors' safety on the service, including disabling direct messaging for users under16.

Earlier this month, TikTok again revised its practices. Among other changes, TikTok said it will open new monitoring and investigate centers in Washington DC, Dublin, and Singapore this year, as part of an effort to combat the use of its services for criminal activity.

While most of Paxton's questions appear to be focused on potential criminal activity by TikTok users, the Texas attorney general is also asking the company questions about children's privacy -- including how it verifies users' ages.

Three years ago, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million over claims that it violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits website and app operators from knowingly collecting personal information from children under 13, without parental consent.

Despite that settlement, advocacy groups claimed in 2020 that TikTok continued to collect data from children.

This week, Paxton separately sued Facebook parent Meta over its prior use of facial-recognition technology.

Earlier this year, he sued Google for allegedly deceiving consumers about the collection and use of their location data, and for allegedly arranging for radio personalities who had not used the Pixel 4 phone to endorse it.

Paxton also is leading a multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

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