Utah sues TikTok, saying it operates as 'virtual strip club,' exploits children

Gov. Spencer Cox holds a press conference with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to discuss a lawsuit filed against TikTok, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Oct. 10, 2023. Utah filed a second lawsuit against TikTok on Monday.

Gov. Spencer Cox holds a press conference with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to discuss a lawsuit filed against TikTok, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Oct. 10, 2023. Utah filed a second lawsuit against TikTok on Monday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has filed a second lawsuit against TikTok, alleging that the popular social media platform knowingly "operates in part like a virtual strip club" and allows for the sexual exploitation of young users, Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Monday.

The attorney general's office filed a lawsuit in Utah's 3rd District Court on Monday on behalf of the Utah Department of Commerce's Division of Consumer Protection accusing the social media giant of violating the state's Consumer Sales Practices Act by "profiting from deceptive design features that facilitate sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, the distribution of pornography, and other illegal acts through its virtual currency system."

The lawsuit revolves around a feature called TikTok Live, through which users of the app can livestream videos of themselves and viewers can send money to those sharing videos. The complaint says users can purchase coins on the app which can they be used to send virtual "gifts" to streamers.

"TikTok makes these animated gifts even more tempting by designing them like cute, colorful emojis reminiscent of cartoons and Disney characters — clearly aimed at children," according to the lawsuit, much of which was redacted.

Although TikTok limits the monetization features of streaming to users at least 18 years old, the complaint alleges the company "refuses to enforce meaningful and effective oversight of users' ages."

"In countless livestreams, minors have been encouraged by adults to — among other illicit acts — strip, spread their legs, and flash body parts to the camera, in exchange for virtual gifts," the complaint states.

The lawsuit also alleges the platform "easily facilitates illegal drug sales in Utah" and said an investigator posing as a 17-year-old boy in Utah was "quickly approached by dealers on the platform offering a laundry list of drugs for shipment."

"I find the new allegations against TikTok Live not merely concerning but incredibly disturbing," Cox said. "Such disregard for the safety of young users on the platform, much less profiting off their exploitation, cannot and will not be tolerated. We will take all necessary actions to protect them from TikTok's egregious behavior."

Utah previously sued TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, in October, alleging the company intentionally designed features that are addictive to children. The allegations of known exploitation of minors stem from investigations of those earlier allegations.

"TikTok has created a virtual strip club allowing minors to be exploited across America by connecting innocent victims to predators in real time," Reyes said. "Adding insult to injury, Live facilitates money laundering while TikTok quietly charges 50% on every transaction to profit in the billions from the entire enterprise. Our investigation confirmed TikTok knows of the damage to young victims but feels it makes far too much money to stop. There are so many layers of harm in its practices that we cannot wait a day longer to act."

"This suit is just one of many ways we are fighting for child safety online," he continued.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to suing TikTok, Utah is part of a multistate lawsuit against Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, over similar allegations of design features that are addictive to children and teens. The Utah Legislature has also adopted an aggressive posture toward social media, passing a pair of first-in-the-nation social media regulations last year. Those laws were revamped during the recent legislative session to make it easier for parents of teenagers to sue social platforms, while giving safe harbor to companies that implement a series of features including parental consent and removing features that cause "excessive use."

The most recent complaint seeks to stop TikTok's allegedly illegal practices and require the company to forfeit money "wrongfully obtained by profiting from illegal activity on its platform," according to a news release from the Department of Commerce.

"The Division of Consumer Protection's investigation into TikTok's practices otherwise continues," the release states.

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Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.


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