Under pressure from the European Commission, ByteDance, owner of the video-sharing app TikTok, has agreed to do more to protect children from hidden advertising and inappropriate content.
The Chinese-owned company fell under the spotlight in February last year following complaints from the European Consumer Organization (BEUC) that it was failing to comply with the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, the Consumer Rights Directive and the Unfair Contract Terms Directive.
But it has now agreed to make a series of changes, most notably by allowing users to report ads and offers that could potentially push or trick children into purchasing goods or services.
There’s a new policy for branded content, banning the promotion of inappropriate products and services, such as alcohol, ‘get rich quick’ schemes and cigarettes.
Other changes include the introduction of a toggle which users are prompted to switch on when they publish content captioned with specific brand-related keywords such as #ad or #sponsored; and if a user has more than 10,000 followers, their videos will be reviewed by TikTok against its Branded Content Policy and Community Guidelines to ensure that the content is appropriate.
Paid ads will be identified with a new label, which will be tested for effectiveness by a third party, and users will be able to report undisclosed branded content, with new rules for hashtags and labels also to be be implemented.
Finally, there’s more clarification on how to purchase and use coins, how to get rewards from TikTok and how to send gifts.
“All social media platforms are required to play by the rules and make sure that consumers can easily identify commercial content, including when promoted by influencers,” says commissioner for justice Didier Reynders.
“We welcome TikTok’s commitment for more transparency in the way it operates its business activity. Thanks to our dialogue, consumers will be able to spot all kinds of advertisement that they are exposed to when using this platform.”
BEUC, though, believes that the moves don’t go far enough. TikTok’s copyright clause, it says, still gives the platform an overly-broad license to make use of the content generated and posted by its users.
It’s also concerned about the lack of mechanism to protect young users from abuse by influencers when they purchase TikTok ‘virtual coins; and, it says, TikTok has failed to make commitments to stop profiling and targeting children with personalized advertising.
“We are particularly worried that the profiling and targeting of children with personalised advertising will not be stopped by TikTok. This is in contradiction with the five principles on advertising towards children adopted by the data protection and consumer protection authorities last week,” says BEUC deputy director general Ursula Pachl.
“We now urge the authorities to closely monitor TikTok’s activities and to take national enforcement actions if commitments do not deliver. This must not be the end of the story. BEUC and our members will keep a close eye on the developments.”
In a report earlier this year, UK regulator Ofcom found that half of British children, including 16 per cent of three-to-four-year-olds, used the platform – despite an official minimum age of 13.
The Commission says it plans to carry on monitoring TikTok, and particularly the way it handles child users. Its main concern, it says, is children’s understanding of the commercial aspects of TikTok’s practices, such as personalized advertising.