Utah files lawsuit against TikTok, alleging harm to teen users

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The state of Utah has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against TikTok, arguing the social media platform harms teen users, Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Tuesday.

Lawmakers have become increasingly aggressive toward social media, passing a pair of bills to regulate how social media companies operate in the state. The governor has long promised litigation against several platforms, and the lawsuit against TikTok is the first major court action the state has taken.

“Make no mistake that Utah will continue to lead out to protect children from the harms of social media, and this is not a partisan issue,” Cox said. “We will not stand by while these companies fail to take adequate meaningful action to protect our children. We will prevail in holding social media companies accountable by any means necessary.”

Reyes said the complaint alleges TikTok’s algorithm “intentionally creates an addiction that targets our kids,” saying the company designed those features to “mimic a cruel slot machine that hooks kids’ attention and does not let them go.”

He also accused the company of misleading the public about its connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and said the company is “siphoning large amounts of personal data from our kids every time they use the platform.”

“Our efforts to demand accountability did not start yesterday and they will not end tomorrow,” Reyes said.

The civil lawsuit seeks to force TikTok to change its practices, and seeks punitive damages to rectify the alleged harms.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

Addictive algorithms

Cox has previously compared social media companies to tobacco companies, saying the platforms are aware of the harms their products inflict on children and teenagers, but they continue to market to them anyway.

Chief among those harms, Cox said, are the algorithms encouraging repeat use of the platforms. The governor said the algorithms are programmed to “continuously learn how to better manipulate our kids to stay on the app for too long and return to the app as often as possible” — features even adults have a hard time resisting.

He also accused TikTok of misleading parents about the safety of the app. Reyes said TikTok also allows “disturbing content and dangerous challenges” to reach children, and doesn’t take the necessary steps to protect them.

Referencing lawsuits filed against tobacco companies, Cox said the purpose of the state’s lawsuit isn’t just to get money, it’s also aimed at changing the behavior of the company and incentivize it to put in place more controls to protect children.

“If the only way we can get their attention is that they end up paying billions of dollars to correct some things of the damage they’ve done — it doesn’t bring back our kids, it doesn’t bring back their innocence — but it’s certainly better than nothing and nothing is what we’re getting from them,” he said.

“We will look back on this and deeply regret that we didn’t do this sooner,” Cox said. “It’s one of my regrets that we didn’t do this four or five years ago.”

Gov. Spencer Cox holds a press conference with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to discuss a lawsuit filed against TikTok, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Gov. Spencer Cox holds a press conference with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to discuss a lawsuit filed against TikTok, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Concerns about TikTok’s ties to China

TikTok has increasingly been seen as a threat to national security, because its parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China, where the Chinese Communist Party has broad power to collect user information from companies.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told a congressional committee in March the company is incorporated in the U.S., and “TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were made.”

Reyes said Chew has claimed ByteDance doesn’t control or influence TikTok, which the attorney general called “objectively false.”

“In short, TikTok’s public statements that it is independent of its Chinese-based parent company, and thus Chinese law, are false and misleading,” the lawsuit states.

What’s next?

Cox and Reyes both promised this won’t be the last lawsuit against social media companies, and the lawsuit is meant as a “warning” to other platforms they say have engaged in similar behavior.

They declined to call out any specific companies, but Reyes said they are “looking at any and all potential targets.”

The governor said the companies have the ability to impose more guardrails to protect users without violating First Amendment rights to free speech.

“But the problem is, right now, there’s no cost to them to keep doing what they’re doing, and so, unless and until we impose a severe cost on them as a society, they’re going to keep doing this,” he said.

Utah has previously pressed TikTok to respond to investigative subpoenas, and Reyes said it will file motions in the coming weeks asking the courts to compel the company to respond.

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