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Utah Sues TikTok Over Harmful Impacts on Young Users

Yeah, I’m not sure this is going to hold up, but it does add to the steadily mounting case against TikTok in the U.S.

The state of Utah has this week filed legal action against TikTok, and parent company ByteDance, over the app’s use of algorithmic sorting, based on user engagement, to create an addictive experience, especially for younger users.

As reported by Reuters:

Utah’s suit filed in state court said the videos leverage ‘highly powerful algorithms and manipulative design features — many of which mimic features of slot machines’ and the result ‘of these manipulative tactics is that young consumers become hooked.’”

Which is partially true, but then again, as an entertainment medium, funded by ads, TikTok’s business model is to show users more of what they like, and less of what they don’t. Which is much like regular TV, and as such, I don’t think that TikTok’s processes will meet the legal requirements for deceptive practices, though it will be interesting to see what, exactly, the case is against the platform in this respect.

Utah’s seeking civil penalties, as well as an injunction that would prohibit TikTok from violating state laws around deceptive business practices in future.

Which is similar to other state-based legal challenges that TikTok is also facing in the U.S.

Late last year, Indiana filed suit against TikTok for exposing minors to inappropriate content, as well as making user data accessible to China. Arkansas has also launched legal proceedings against TikTok, along with Facebook, over mental health impacts and privacy concerns.

Among various claims, the filings suggest that social media platforms utilize features that are “addictive and intended to manipulate users’ brains by triggering the release of dopamine.”

Which is also true, but again, the legal technicalities here will be important, in establishing when a product or service goes from being “compelling” to “addictive,” and what constitutes deceptive practices in this respect.

Much of the legal terminology in this area relates to drug use specifically, with “addiction” referring to the “chronic or habitual use of any chemical substance to alter states of body or mind for other than medically warranted purposes.” In this instance, that chemical substance would presumably be dopamine, with social platforms sparking what may be considered addictive dopamine release.

And there is legal precedent for such.

In 2012, a French man successfully sued pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline after a drug that he was prescribed to treat Parkinson’s disease led to him developing harmful compulsive behaviors, as a result of the drug activating his dopamine receptors. Various other Parkinson’s patients have also been able to establish legal basis for the same, which shows that a company can be sued for triggering harm by eliciting dopamine response.

But in all of these cases, this was through artificial means, by directly triggering dopamine receptors with chemical stimulants. In which case, there’s a more direct link to the legal definition, but establishing that same connection to online algorithms seems like a stretch.

In any event, it’s another legal challenge for TikTok to deal with, which is also still facing a complete ban in the state of Montana from next year (which it’s also challenging), along with a potential full ban in the U.S., with the White House still weighing its decision on the app.

That’ll come down to an eventual ruling by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which has been assessing the app for almost three years, but has been hamstrung by various legal and legislative challenges.

More recent moves, however, could pave the way for an alternate way forward on a full TikTok ban, with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo last week announcing her support for a new bill that could give that agency broader authority to take action against TikTok, as well as other foreign-based apps.

That’s also set to face further challenges and political wrangling. But essentially, the axe is still swinging over TikTok in the U.S., and if America does move to ban the app, you can bet that various other nations will follow suit.

Still, it feels like broader action will be held off until there’s immediate, clear reason. The U.S. government has also been hesitant to take drastic action against TikTok due to concerns around how it could impact already tenuous U.S.-China relations, though if the situation changes, by, say, China increasing its support for Russia’s action in Ukraine, that stance could switch very quickly.

As you may recall, the last big push to ban TikTok in the U.S. came shortly after U.S. military planes shot down a spy balloon that reportedly originated from China. With concerns heightened, a full ban becomes more viable, but without such an impetus, it’s unclear if U.S. officials view it as a major priority and concern.

But TikTok is banned on all government-owned devices, so there is clearly a level of concern still present. One more push and we could see more significant action taken, with these smaller, state-based legal cases continuing to stack the case against the app, and keeping it in the consideration of federal representatives.

In essence, I doubt that this new case will lead to a broader ban of TikTok in the U.S., or even within these specific states (with Montana potentially being the exception).

But it is another reminder that the app could well be gone, very quickly, depending on broader geopolitical shifts.

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