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Utah accuses TikTok of misleading users about safety, China connection in new lawsuit

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Utah accuses TikTok of misleading users about safety, China connection in new lawsuit

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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden before he speaks at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 10, 2023.

George Frey | Getty Images

Utah is the latest state to file suit against TikTok, alleging the social media site misled its citizens about its relationship to its Chinese parent company and deceptively touted its platform as safe.

TikTok has already faced similar lawsuits from Arkansas and Indiana, while Montana has chosen to ban the app altogether, a move that TikTok and creators have challenged. The action among states targeting TikTok stands in contrast to stagnation in Washington, where proposed legislation that could lead to a ban of the app has stalled following an early wave of bipartisan momentum. It underscores how states have taken the lead on many tech policy issues given the difficulty of moving legislation through Congress.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox invoked research about social media’s effect on adolescents, including a recent U.S. Surgeon General report, in announcing the lawsuit Tuesday.

“Social media companies must be held responsible for the harms they are causing,” Cox said in a statement.

In the complaint, filed in state court, Attorney General Sean Reyes alleges TikTok violated Utah’s consumer protection laws in three ways:

  • By deploying and marketing “an addictive product with design features intended to manipulate children.”
  • By misrepresenting the safety of the app and deceptively claiming it “can effectively maintain a safe digital environment for children.”
  • By misleading consumers about the degree of its relationship with China-based parent company ByteDance.

TikTok did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the suit.

TikTok’s ownership by a China-based company has been at the crux of many government officials’ concerns about the company. That’s because Chinese law could compel companies based there to hand over internal information if the government cites national security concerns.

What is ByteDance?

The other elements of the suit touch on concerns that many people have about social media platforms in general, not just TikTok. Still, the lawsuit hones in on features such as TikTok’s vertical swipe to load new videos, likening it to a slot machine that keeps users coming back for a dopamine rush.

Utah has been particularly active in seeking to protect its citizens from what it sees as the harmful effects of social media. Earlier this year, Cox signed two new laws that would implement sweeping new restrictions aiming to protect kids online. For example, they would restrict the hours minors are able to access social media platforms, require age verification to maintain an account and give parents a way to access their kids’ accounts, including private messages.

Privacy and LGBTQ+ rights advocates have warned that such restrictions could backfire by requiring more invasive practices to verify the age of all users. Additionally, giving parents broad access to kids’ accounts could put children in abusive homes in harm’s way, opponents of the legislation have argued.

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