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TikTok Fights to Keep China Platform Out of US Addiction Suits

In Technology
May 03, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Lawyers spearheading hundreds of lawsuits accusing social media platforms of addicting youths say the protections that TikTok’s platform in China offers for children show that the popular video-sharing app could operate more responsibly in the US.

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But TikTok’s Beijing-based parent, ByteDance Ltd., is refusing to share information with the US lawyers about its platforms in China and other countries, saying it’s not relevant to the ongoing litigation in California.

The dispute comes as TikTok braces for a high-profile legal fight with the US government over a new law that calls for ByteDance to divest its stake in TikTok within the year or face a total ban of the app in America. TikTok’s ties to China have long been a point of scrutiny, triggering national security concerns that the Chinese government could access user data or influence what’s seen on the app.

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Lawyers representing young people and their families said in a filing Wednesday that TikTok “provides safety features in some countries and not others” and that information about how the app’s platform designs differ by country is relevant to their case. They complained that ByteDance insists “what happens overseas should stay overseas.”

“The overseas version of the platform appears to protect children in China in ways that the US version does not afford children here,” according to the filing in federal court in Oakland, California.

Lawyers for ByteDance rejected that assertion and said any information about how the app operates outside of the US is irrelevant to the case. They said the effort to compel the production of that information is a “discovery detour.”

The ByteDance attorneys argued in their statement in Wednesday’s joint filing that they’ve already agreed to conduct searches for internal documents that might reference or compare its US platform to those operated elsewhere. They said there’s no need for “open-ended discovery of the TikTok Platform across over 150 countries worldwide, let alone discovery on different services operated exclusively within China.”

“Those services were developed for use in other countries and are subject to different laws and regulations, reflecting those countries’ different cultures and priorities,” the company’s lawyers said.

TikTok is one of a handful of social media companies facing more than 1,000 suits in state and federal courts by families and public school districts. The lawsuits also name Facebook and Instagram parent Meta Platforms Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Snap Inc., owner of the Snapchat platform.

The lawsuits claim the social media companies use algorithms to hook adolescents and young adults, causing them to suffer anxiety, depression, eating disorders and sleeplessness. Some school districts allege that the platforms have created a public nuisance.

The companies have denied wrongdoing, saying they’ve taken steps to keep young users safe on the platforms.

The case is In Re Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, 22-md-03047, US District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

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