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A Third of TikTok’s U.S. Users May Be 14 or Under, Raising Safety Questions

If Microsoft or another company buys TikTok before President Trump bans the Chinese-owned video app on national security grounds, it will acquire a giant community of devoted fans and a lucrative platform for selling ads.

It might be buying something else, too: a big population of users ages 14 and under. The minimum age for using TikTok is 13.

In July, TikTok classified more than a third of its 49 million daily users in the United States as being 14 years old or younger, according to internal company data and documents that were reviewed by The New York Times. While some of those users are likely to be 13 or 14, one former employee said TikTok workers had previously pointed out videos from children who appeared to be even younger that were allowed to remain online for weeks.

The number of users who TikTok believes might be younger than 13 raises questions about whether the company is doing enough to protect them. In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires internet platforms to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information on children under 13. The operators of Musical.ly, an app that was merged into TikTok in 2018, paid a $5.7 million fine last year to settle accusations from the Federal Trade Commission that it had broken those rules.

TikTok declined to comment on the user numbers. In response to questions about the safety of younger users, a company representative referred to measures such as allowing parents to control what their teenagers see on the app and how much time they can spend on it.

TikTok and its owner, the Chinese social media giant ByteDance, have been in the cross hairs of the Trump administration, which is concerned that the app could help the Chinese Communist Party obtain Americans’ private information. Mr. Trump this month indicated his support for Microsoft or another American company to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations as a way to allay the security fears.

But any deal for TikTok would require buyers to contend not just with political pressures, but also with issues that can become thorny at all social media platforms, including content guidelines, data collection practices and safety protections for children. The app’s large audience of young fans makes it a big draw for advertisers, but also invites extra scrutiny of its privacy safeguards.

TikTok asks for a birth date when users register an account. In the United States, those who say they are under 13 are allowed to use only a walled-off mode within the app in which they cannot share personal information or videos. Yet the concerns are that some under-13 users may lie to get around the age restrictions, and that the platform is not obtaining the required consent from those users’ guardians.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, recently told Wired magazine that TikTok was a “poison chalice” for any buyer, referring to its complexity.

“Being big in the social media business is no simple game,” he said.

The TikTok data seen by The Times shows that the number of daily U.S. users in July whom the company estimated to be 14 or younger — 18 million — was almost as large as the number of over-14 users, around 20 million. The rest of TikTok’s U.S. users were classified as being of unknown age.

TikTok does not rely only on users’ self-reported dates of birth to categorize them into age groups. It also estimates their ages using other methods, including facial recognition algorithms that scrutinize profile pictures and videos, said two former TikTok employees and one current employee, who declined to be identified because details of the company’s practices are confidential.

Another way TikTok estimates users’ ages, these people said, is by comparing their activity and social connections in the app against those of users whose ages have already been estimated. The company might also draw upon information about users that is bought from other sources.

In a statement, TikTok said: “As is standard practice across our industry,” the company conducts “high-level age-modeling to better understand our users and allow our safety team to better protect the safety of our younger teens in particular.”

TikTok primarily uses the classification system to inform corporate strategy, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. TikTok’s policy teams use the numbers to create rules for moderators to follow, deciding, for instance, what should be done if an underage user is communicating with an adult on the app.

One of the former employees, who left TikTok this year, said the app did not use the classifications to automatically restrict or take down videos that might be from users under 13, or to secure permission from those users’ parents or guardians.

This raises the question of whether TikTok is responsible for acting upon what it knows about those who are under 13, particularly in light of last year’s F.T.C. fine for violating the federal children’s online privacy law.

The law stipulates that if internet services have “actual knowledge” that a visitor is under 13, they have to obtain parental consent or else delete the user’s personal information. The F.T.C. said on its website that such knowledge might come, for instance, from a child’s posting information online that reveals his or her age, or from concerned parents’ notifying the platform that their young one is using it.

Critics have argued, however, that this standard creates an incentive for online platforms to willfully ignore the issue of whether their visitors are underage.

Josh Golin, the executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said TikTok had a duty to investigate if its own systems were indicating that so many users might be under 13.

“I would argue, once their systems have indicated to them that a user is likely under 13, that they are past the point where they can bury their head in the sand, that their legal obligation has kicked in,” he said.

Angela J. Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who is on the advocacy group’s board, said, “You could argue: Well, they’re not 100 percent sure” that those users are under 13. “But you’re never going to be 100 percent sure. Given that there’s that many under 14, it seems inconceivable to me that they could claim at all that they don’t know this.”

In May, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was one of 20 groups that complained to the F.T.C., saying that TikTok was flouting its agreement with the agency.

According to the data seen by The Times, TikTok’s youthful demographics in the United States are echoed in Western Europe, where the app is also popular.

In Britain, the share of daily users who were classified as 14 or younger was around 43 percent this spring, the data shows. In Germany, the share was more than 35 percent, and in France in February, it was 45 percent.

These proportions may have fallen as TikTok has grown in popularity. In June 2019, nearly half of the daily users in the United States were estimated to be 14 or younger, internal data shows. The share in Germany that month was around 40 percent.

Like the United States, the European Union requires online services to obtain parental consent for processing children’s data. The body that coordinates enforcement of the E.U.’s data protection rules announced in June that it was conducting a review of TikTok’s practices. The French and British privacy watchdogs have also said they are investigating the app.

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Microsoft Said to Be in Talks to Buy TikTok, as Trump Weighs Curtailing App

SAN FRANCISCO — TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app that has been under scrutiny from the Trump administration, is in talks to sell itself to Microsoft and other companies as President Trump weighs harsh actions against the business, including forcing TikTok to divorce itself from its parent company, ByteDance, said people with knowledge of the discussions.

The powerful Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius, has been examining ByteDance’s 2017 purchase of Musical.ly, an app that eventually morphed to become TikTok. The committee has decided to order ByteDance to divest TikTok, and the government is engaged in negotiations over the terms of the separation, according to a person familiar with the administration’s plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. White House officials have said TikTok may pose a national security threat because of its Chinese ownership.

On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who leads the committee, briefed the president on the divestment plan. But it remains unclear what the president will do, including whether the U.S. would apply a divestment order to all of TikTok’s American operations and whether its actions would affect the app’s global business as well.

Mr. Trump is weighing several other courses of action, including an executive order that could use the vast powers of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to bar certain foreign apps from American app stores. The Trump administration has also considered whether to add TikTok’s parent to a so-called “entity list,” which would prevent it from purchasing American products and services without a special license, said people with knowledge of the matter. Discussions are expected to continue into this weekend.

In his comments on Friday, Mr. Trump told reporters that there were “a couple of options” with TikTok, including “banning” it. He added, “But a lot of things are happening, so we’ll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives with respect to TikTok.”

Later on Friday, Mr. Trump said he planned to take action as soon as Saturday. He added that he was not leaning toward allowing an American company to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations.

It’s unclear how advanced TikTok’s talks to sell itself to Microsoft and other companies are, but changing ownership is crucial for the app. The United States is one of TikTok’s major markets, so continued operations in the country are a priority.

TikTok has discussed other scenarios to alleviate concerns by U.S. officials. In one scenario, non-Chinese investors like Sequoia Capital, SoftBank and General Atlantic could purchase a majority stake in the app from ByteDance, people familiar with the discussions have said.

Any deal would likely be expensive. ByteDance’s valuation recently stood at around $100 billion, according to the research firm PitchBook.

In a statement, TikTok did not address Mr. Trump’s comments or any deal talks. A spokeswoman said the app was confident in its long-term success and that it was committed to protecting the privacy and safety of its creators so they could “bring joy to families.”

Microsoft declined to comment.

The discussions between Microsoft and TikTok were earlier reported by Fox Business. Bloomberg earlier reported that President Trump was poised to announce an order to force ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations.

The developments reflect the increasing pressure on TikTok. For months, lawmakers and the Trump administration have questioned whether the app is susceptible to influence from the Chinese government, including potential requests to censor material shared on the platform or to share American user data with Chinese officials.

“It is well established at this point that apps that have granular access to user data and location and other sensitive personal data are very much on the radar of Cfius and can cause significant national security concerns,” said John P. Kabaelo, a lawyer who represents companies in Cfius reviews.

TikTok generally collects similar amounts of data from mobile phones as other social media apps, said security experts. But Christoph Hebeisen, the director of security intelligence research at Lookout, a company that focuses on the security of mobile devices, said U.S. officials are concerned by the app because “if the parent company is Chinese, which it is in this case, they are under Chinese security law.”

He added, “I don’t think it is a stretch to think if China wanted to access that data they would have a means to do so.”

TikTok is used by more than 800 million people around the world and is especially popular with young people. Users can easily add music and other audio tracks to their videos, which then often travel virally across Facebook and Twitter.

As the app has become more popular, TikTok’s Chinese offices have swollen to thousands of employees. The company has also maintained a U.S. presence, with offices in New York and Los Angeles.

In response to the heightened scrutiny from Washington, TikTok in May hired a top Disney executive, Kevin Mayer to be its chief executive. The app has also pledged to publicly reveal the algorithm that powers its app.

In addition, TikTok has bulked up its lobbying operation in Washington. With help from prominent investors like SoftBank and General Atlantic, it has hired the former head of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents companies like Google and Facebook, and staff members from prominent members from Congress.

The company has signed on more than 35 lobbyists, including David J. Urban, a former West Point classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an ally of Mr. Trump. The company’s lobbyists have highlighted TikTok’s American investors and Mr. Mayer’s hire.

Sensing weakness, rivals like Facebook have homed in on lawmakers’ distrust of TikTok’s Chinese ownership. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said that American companies like his would suffer if the government put them at a competitive disadvantage against TikTok.

On Wednesday, with the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google testifying in front of Congress about their market power, Mr. Mayer defended TikTok while pledging to do right by the U.S. government.

“The entire industry has received scrutiny, and rightly so. Yet we have received even more scrutiny due to the company’s Chinese origins,” he said in a statement. “We believe it is essential to show users, advertisers, creators, and regulators that we are responsible and committed members of the American community that follows U.S. laws.”

Cfius has previously ordered companies to divest their acquisitions. Congress had expanded the panel’s purview in 2018 to include reviews of transactions involving “sensitive user data,” The change was spurred by concerns that foreign ownership of data gathered by apps and internet sites could threaten national security.

In 2019, the Trump administration ordered a Chinese firm to relinquish its control of Grindr, the gay dating app, concerned that China might use the information to blackmail American officials. The Chinese company, Beijing Kunlun Technology, said it reached a deal with Cfius earlier this year to sell the app to an investment group, San Vicente Acquisition LLC, though Reuters later reported that the buyer had ties to the Chinese owner.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco, and Ana Swanson and Alan Rappeport from Washington. David McCabe and Julian Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.