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TikTok’s Terms of Service Changes and the Rising Wave of Litigation

TikTok has recently made significant changes to its terms of service amidst growing legal scrutiny and public concern over its impact on young users. These alterations, which include a shift from private arbitration to requiring complaints to be filed in California courts and a new one-year limit for legal actions, have sparked a complex debate among legal experts, parents, and regulators.

The Shift in TikTok’s Legal Strategy

In a notable policy shift, TikTok amended its terms of service in July, moving away from private arbitration for user disputes. This change mandates that complaints must be filed in one of two California courts. 

“While arbitration has long been considered beneficial to companies, some lawyers have recently figured out how to make it costly for companies by bringing consumers’ arbitration claims en masse,” explains Robert Freund, an advertising and e-commerce lawyer.

Another critical change is the introduction of a one-year timeframe for legal actions related to alleged harm from using the app. This stipulation marks a significant departure from the previous terms, which did not specify any timeline for legal recourse.

Rising Legal Challenges Against TikTok

A coalition of over 40 state attorneys general, led by Tennessee and Colorado, is investigating TikTok’s treatment of young users. This bipartisan probe aims to determine whether the company engaged in unfair and deceptive conduct detrimental to the mental health of children and teens. 

“These types of investigations, if they uncover possible wrongdoing, can lead to government and consumer lawsuits,” notes a legal expert.

Federal Lawsuit Progression

In a separate but related development, a federal judge in California ruled that a case involving hundreds of lawsuits against social media platforms, including TikTok, could proceed. This decision is significant as it challenges the traditional defences tech giants have used, such as the First Amendment and laws protecting platforms from liability for user content.

TikTok, which did not respond to requests for comment, has previously stated that it has “industry-leading safeguards for young people,” including parental controls and screen time limits. 

However, Kyle Roche, a lawyer representing over 1,000 guardians and minors in claims against TikTok, challenges these assertions. “My clients were minors and could not agree to the changes,” Roche stated, expressing his intention to bring disputes through arbitration.

Legal experts like Omri Ben-Shahar, a University of Chicago law professor, are sceptical about TikTok’s ability to defend these term changes in court. “When firms post new terms or just send people an email saying, ‘Hey, by the way, there are new terms,’ that does not fly,” he said.

Leigh Cardinal, a mother from Chico, California, shared her personal experience, highlighting the human impact of these issues. Her 15-year-old daughter suffered from anxiety and depression, which Cardinal attributes to excessive TikTok usage. Cardinal’s story is one of many that explain the growing concerns among parents about the influence of social media on young people.

TikTok’s recent terms of service changes, set against the backdrop of increasing legal scrutiny and public concern, mark a critical juncture in the ongoing debate over the responsibility of social media platforms in protecting young users. 

As legal battles loom and parental worries mount, the outcomes of these changes and challenges will likely have far-reaching implications for the social media landscape and its governance.

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