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Utah sues TikTok, calling TikTok Live a “virtual strip club” for teens

TThe state of Utah is suing TikTok, claiming that TikTok Live, one of the platform's most popular and lucrative features, is being used to sexually exploit children and teenagers, who engage in offensive and inappropriate acts in exchange for virtual gifts that can be exchanged for real money.

The lawsuit, which is based in part on the Forbes investigation, “How TikTok Live Became a ‘Strip Club Full of 15-Year-Olds’” — similarly describes the TikTok video streamer as a “virtual strip club” and “seedy underbelly of sexual exploitation.” Citing that reporting and additional internal TikTok materials supporting it, obtained under a subpoena for documents in a separate ongoing case, Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes and the state’s Division of Consumer Protection accuse TikTok of violating Utah’s Consumer Sales Practices Act and are demanding a jury trial.

“LIVE is anything but a safe place for users – especially children – and these dangers are no accident,” the heavily redacted 54-page complaint states. “The harmful and unconscionable actions on LIVE stem directly from TikTok's virtual in-app economy, which has already facilitated billions of dollars in transactions. Money is exchanged between users, stored in user accounts, and withdrawn from the platform with no oversight, even though TikTok controls the platform. This monetary system has fostered an alarming culture of exploitation and illegal activity.”

“You pay my bills.”

A 14-year-old in front of 2,000 strangers on TikTok Live

TikTok is facing an existential crisis in the U.S. after President Joe Biden signed a law early next year banning the app nationwide on safety grounds unless China-based parent company ByteDance agrees to sell the platform to an American owner. But fears about the dangers TikTok may pose to children existed even before this national security scrutiny, which exploded in Washington with the onset of the pandemic. A year earlier, the Federal Trade Commission agreed to a nearly $6 million settlement with TikTok (then Musical.ly) over alleged violations of children's privacy—at the time a record civil penalty for the agency in the area. Forbes has since shed light on the proliferation of child sexual abuse material on TikTok, problems with how TikTok moderators handle such content, and the way in which TikTok Live is being misused to entice young girls to participate in raunchy and potentially illegal shows for adult men on the app.

In a TikTok Live, the following was described in detail: Forbes As part of one investigation, a bralette-clad 14-year-old answered requests from strangers on a show with 2,000 listeners. Some offered “$35 for a quick look,” asked to see her feet and promised to send money to her Cash App. “They pay my bills,” the young girl told viewers.

In another video, a teenager slowly cut off her shirt with scissors while 3,000 viewers egged her on. “IF YOU DO THE BLACK PART I'LL SEND 35,000 TIKTOK COINS ($400) TO TIKTOK LIVE,” wrote one commenter, urging her to cut off her bra. In other TikTok streams, often filmed from the girls' bedrooms and bathrooms, they were offered financial rewards if they kissed or spread their legs for the camera.

Viewers of the shows can buy TikTok coins, which they can use to purchase and send digital gifts to the livestream hosts. The virtual gifts seem harmless — they include flowers, hearts, ice cream cones and lollipops — but can be converted into cash by the recipient. (Those who “go live” simply link their TikTok and bank accounts to exchange these items for real money.) But on many of the hundreds of TikTok livestreams hosted by Forbesthe gifts appeared to have been sent from adults to minors, which legal and law enforcement experts say can lead to perpetrators grooming victims for sexual abuse and sextortion online or offline. The reporting prompted top Republicans in Congress to call a meeting with TikTok CEO Shou Chew for late 2022.

The Utah Attorney General's office later filed the lawsuit “to stop TikTok's exploitative monetization scheme and protect Utah's youth,” the complaint said. It also alleged that TikTok is not registered with the U.S. Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), as required under federal law. This means that “every transaction that takes place on the platform circumvents regulatory systems designed to identify and stop sexual exploitation and other illegal activities, such as money laundering, terrorist financing, drug trafficking, and illegal gambling – abhorrent conduct that TikTok not only facilitates but from which it makes enormous profits.”

Utah Governor Spencer Cox said: “I find the new allegations against TikTok Live not only troubling, but incredibly disturbing.”


Do you have a tip about TikTok or child safety issues on social media? Contact Alexandra S. Levine securely via Signal/WhatsApp at (310) 526–1242 or by email at alevine@forbes.com.


TikTok spokesperson Michael Hughes said in an emailed statement: “TikTok has industry-leading policies and measures in place to protect the safety and well-being of teens. Creators must be at least 18 years old before they can go LIVE, and their account must meet a certain follower requirement. We immediately block access to features when we find accounts that do not meet our age requirements.” (Utah said in its complaint that “these age restrictions are nothing more than empty policy statements” and that “TikTok's age restriction is ineffective, and many children still participate in LIVE events every day.”)

Utah also claimed that what the company has said publicly on these issues, including its response to ForbesThe investigation into TikTok Live did not match what was going on inside the company and was inaccurate in some cases, according to internal documents reviewed by the attorney general's office. (Example: Utah said TikTok's claims about its policies and actions to protect teens, including blocking access to features for underage users, were false, but the complaint redacted internal information that explained this. Utah plans to ask the court to release the documents.)

“Our investigation has confirmed that TikTok is aware of the harm it is causing to young victims, but believes it is making far too much money to stop it,” said Utah Attorney General Reyes.

It is the second lawsuit the state has filed against TikTok. In October 2023, Utah sued the company over its addictive algorithm and other features designed to maximize the time young users spend on the app; TikTok filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and is awaiting a decision. Utah is also part of a bipartisan group of attorneys general investigating TikTok's alleged harms to underage users.

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