TikTok has a month to respond to concerns raised by European consumer protection agencies earlier this year, EU lawmakers said today.
The Commission has launched what it described as “a formal dialogue” with the video sharing platform over its commercial practices and policy.
Areas of specific concern include hidden marketing, aggressive advertising techniques targeted at children and certain contractual terms in TikTok’s policies that could be considered misleading and confusing for consumers, per the Commission.
Commenting in a statement, justice commissioner Didier Reynders added: “The current pandemic has further accelerated digitalisation. This has brought new opportunities but it has also created new risks, in particular for vulnerable consumers. In the European Union, it is prohibited to target children and minors with disguised advertising such as banners in videos. The dialogue we are launching today should support TikTok in complying with EU rules to protect consumers.”
The background to this is that back in February the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) sent the Commission a report calling out a number of TikTok’s policies and practices — including what it said were unfair terms and copyright practices. It also flagged the risk of children being exposed to inappropriate content on the platform, and accused TikTok of misleading data processing and privacy practices.
Complaints were filed around the same time by consumer organisations in 15 EU countries — urging those national authorities to investigate the social media giant’s conduct.
The multi-pronged EU action means TikTok has not just the Commission looking at the detail of its small print but is facing questions from a network of national consumer protection authorities — which is being co-led by the Swedish Consumer Agency and the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (which handles privacy issues related to the platform).
Nonetheless, the BEUC queried why the Commission hasn’t yet launched a formal enforcement procedure.
“We hope that the authorities will stick to their guns in this ‘dialogue’ which we understand is not yet a formal launch of an enforcement procedure. It must lead to good results for consumers, tackling all the points that BEUC raised. BEUC also hopes to be consulted before an agreement is reached,” a spokesperson for the organization told us.
Also reached for comment, TikTok sent us this statement on the Commission’s action, attributed to its director of public policy, Caroline Greer:
As part of our ongoing engagement with regulators and other external stakeholders over issues such as consumer protection and transparency, we are engaging in a dialogue with the Irish Consumer Protection Commission and the Swedish Consumer Agency and look forward to discussing the measures we’ve already introduced. In addition, we have taken a number of steps to protect our younger users, including making all under-16 accounts private-by-default, and disabling their access to direct messaging. Further, users under 18 cannot buy, send or receive virtual gifts, and we have strict policies prohibiting advertising directly appealing to those under the age of digital consent.
The company told us it uses age verification for personalized ads — saying users must have verified that they are 13+ to receive these ads; as well as being over the age of digital consent in their respective EU country; and also having consented to receive targeted ads.
However, TikTok’s age verification technology has been criticized as weak before now — and recent emergency child-safety-focused enforcement action by the Italian national data protection agency has led to TikTok having to pledge to strengthen its age verification processes in the country.
The Italian enforcement action also resulted in TikTok removing more than 500,000 accounts suspected of belonging to users aged younger than 13 earlier this month — raising further questions about whether it can really claim that under-13s aren’t routinely exposed to targeted ads on its platform.
In further background remarks it sent us, TikTok claimed it has clear labelling of sponsored content. But it also noted it’s made some recent changes — such as switching the label it applies on video advertising from “sponsored” to “ad” to make it clearer.
It also said it’s working on a toggle that aims to make it clearer to users when they may be exposed to advertising by other users by enabling the latter users to prominently disclose that their content contains advertising.
TikTok said the tool is currently in beta testing in Europe but it said it expects to move to general availability this summer and will also amend its ToS to require users to use this toggle whenever their content contains advertising. (But without adequate enforcement that may just end up as another overlooked and easily abused setting.)
The company recently announced a transparency center in Europe in a move that looks intended to counter some of the concerns being raised about its business in the region, as well as to prepare it for the increased oversight that’s coming down the pipe for all digital platforms operating in the EU — as the bloc works to update its digital rulebook.