TikTok requires users to “forever waive” rights to sue over past harms

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TikTok requires users to “forever waive” rights to sue over past harms

Some TikTok users may have skipped reviewing an update to TikTok’s terms of service this summer that shakes up the process for filing a legal dispute against the app. According to The New York Times, changes that TikTok “quietly” made to its terms suggest that the popular app has spent the back half of 2023 preparing for a wave of legal battles.

In July, TikTok overhauled its rules for dispute resolution, pivoting from requiring private arbitration to insisting that legal complaints be filed in either the US District Court for the Central District of California or the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles. Legal experts told the Times this could be a way for TikTok to dodge arbitration claims filed en masse that can cost companies millions more in fees than they expected to pay through individual arbitration.

Perhaps most significantly, TikTok also added a section to its terms that mandates that all legal complaints be filed within one year of any alleged harm caused by using the app. The terms now say that TikTok users “forever waive” rights to pursue any older claims. And unlike a prior version of TikTok’s terms of service archived in May 2023, users do not seem to have any options to opt out of waiving their rights.

TikTok did not immediately respond to Ars’ request to comment, but has previously defended its “industry-leading safeguards for young people,” the Times noted.

Lawyers told the Times that these changes could make it more challenging for TikTok users to pursue legal action at a time when federal agencies are heavily scrutinizing the app and complaints about certain TikTok features allegedly harming kids are mounting.

In the past few years, TikTok has had mixed success defending against user lawsuits filed in courts. In 2021, TikTok was dealt a $92 million blow after settling a class-action lawsuit filed in an Illinois court, which alleged that the app illegally collected underage TikTok users’ personal data. Then, in 2022, TikTok defeated a Pennsylvania lawsuit alleging that the app was liable for a child’s death because its algorithm promoted a deadly “Blackout Challenge.” The same year, a bipartisan coalition of 44 state attorneys general announced an investigation to determine whether TikTok violated consumer laws by allegedly putting young users at risk.

Section 230 shielded TikTok from liability in the 2022 “Blackout Challenge” lawsuit, but more recently, a California judge ruled last month that social media platforms—including TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube—couldn’t use a blanket Section 230 defense in a child safety case involving hundreds of children and teens allegedly harmed by social media use across 30 states.

Some of the product liability claims raised in that case are tied to features not protected by Section 230 immunity, the judge wrote, opening up social media platforms to potentially more lawsuits focused on those features. And the Times reported that investigations like the one launched by the bipartisan coalition “can lead to government and consumer lawsuits.”

As new information becomes available to consumers through investigations and lawsuits, there are concerns that users may become aware of harms that occurred before TikTok’s one-year window to file complaints and have no path to seek remedies.

However, it’s currently unclear if TikTok’s new terms will stand up against legal challenges. University of Chicago law professor Omri Ben-Shahar told the Times that TikTok might struggle to defend its new terms in court, and it looks like TikTok is already facing pushback. One lawyer representing more than 1,000 guardians and minors claiming TikTok-related harms, Kyle Roche, told the Times that he is challenging TikTok’s updated terms. Roche said that the minors he represents “could not agree to the changes” and intended to ignore the updates, instead bringing their claims through private arbitration.

TikTok has also spent the past year defending against attempts by lawmakers to ban the China-based app in the US over concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may use the app to surveil Americans. Congress has weighed different bipartisan bills with names like “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act” and “RESTRICT Act,” each intent to lay out a legal path to ban TikTok nationwide over alleged national security concerns.

So far, TikTok has defeated every attempt to widely ban the app, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers have any plans to stop trying. Most recently, a federal judge stopped Montana’s effort to ban TikTok statewide from taking effect, but a more limited TikTok ban restricting access on state-owned devices was upheld in Texas, Reuters reported.

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