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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Iowa AG moves to block TikTok claims about mature content

An investigation by Iowa's attorney general found TikTok users as young as 13 can access videos depicting sexual content, nudity and profanity, and the use of alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The state of Iowa asked a trial judge Monday to temporarily enjoin TikTok from claiming the content it hosts contains only infrequent or mild profanity, sexual content, and references to alcohol and drug abuse in order to qualify for an age 12-plus app rating.

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird filed the state's suit against TikTok this past January claiming the app contains sexual content, nudity, profanity, and mature themes including references to alcohol, tobacco, and drug use despite defendants' representations that such content is “mild” or “infrequent.”

An attorney general investigation revealed that TikTok users as young as 13 can access videos depicting alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, vaping devices, profanity, and videos promoting eating disorders, suicide and self-harm.

Iowa claims TikTok misrepresents the nature of its content in answers to an Apple questionnaire required to offer the app on Apple App Store. Certain content is not supposed to be available users under 17 whereas more explicit content is available to those age 17 or older. The state says TikTok intentionally misrepresents the frequency and intensity of content that is inappropriate for teenagers.

“TikTok lies to Iowa parents,” the state asserts in a brief filed with the court. “TikTok’s public age rating claims that its app is safe, or at least appropriate, for anyone 12 years old or older. But TikTok serves inappropriate content to Iowa adolescents through a daily dose of videos containing profanity, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other mature themes — and it knows that it does so.”

The state wants the trial court to issue a temporary injunction that would prohibit TikTok from “continuing to deceive Iowa consumers about the content on its app through its app store age-rating misrepresentations.”

In response, TikTok argues that eliminating supposedly misleading statements regarding its suitability for young teens would force it to make statements with which it disagrees — that is, that the platform is not appropriate for users under 17 and that videos falling within the specified categories of content are “frequent and intense.”

At Monday’s hearing, Iowa Solicitor General Eric Wessan argued the state brought this suit and a motion for an injunction “because TikTok’s deceptive conduct has real consequences for parents and teens.”

The state showed five videos in court found on TikTok by an investigator for the state with sexually explicit images and vulgar language, information promoting alcohol, tobacco and drug use, and a suggestion about self-harm. The investigator was able to view these videos while logged in as a 13-year-old because TikTok takes it at face value that a person downloading the app is truthful about his or her age.

Another video showcased during Monday’s hearing showed a woman lip-syncing to the lyrics: “Lick me, fuck me, kiss me, tease me, Bitch, take out your titties, I wan’ see ‘em.”

TikTok's attorney Neema Sahni of Covington & Burlington in Washington told Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Farrell the videos “cherry-picked” by the state were used for “shock value” to support a broad injunction, noting that 11 billion videos were uploaded onto the TikTok app by users nationwide between 2021 and 2024, which drew 33 trillion views. The examples cited by the state “can’t possibly qualify as frequent,” Sahni said.

TikTok argues that because the internet does not respect boundaries, one state’s restrictions would affect all 50 states in violation of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“There is no Iowa-specific version of the App Store, so granting the state’s requested injunction would necessarily dictate how the TikTok platform is made available in all fifty states,” TikTok said in a brief filed with the court. “If another state were to have a different interpretation of the App Store’s terminology, TikTok would be exposed to a patchwork of inconsistent and burdensome regulation, where each state could decide the appropriate age rating for the TikTok platform, and what types of content on the platform are ‘frequent’ or ‘mild.’”

TikTok faces pressure nationally spurred by concerns about China accessing Americans’ TikTok user data. As part of a foreign aid package approved by Congress and signed into law April 24 by President Biden, ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese-owned parent company, would be required to divest itself of TikTok. If it fails to do so, the federal government will block cloud service providers and app stores from listing the app in the United States.

At the conclusion of Monday’s hearing, Farrell said he would issue a ruling “as soon as possible.”

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Categories / Courts, First Amendment, Law, Media, National, Regional, Technology

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