TikTok Slammed in Europe Over 'Hidden Advertising' to Kids

File photo of the TikTok building in Culver City, California.
File photo of the TikTok building in Culver City, California.
Photo: Valerie Macon (Getty Images)

The European consumer advocacy group BEUC filed a complaint against TikTok on Tuesday, including allegations the Chinese-based social media platform isn’t been transparent about why it needs to collect some data on users. The complaint also claims TikTok is deploying “hidden advertising” aimed at children, according to the group’s press release.

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While most of the concerns around TikTok in the U.S. revolve around user data and the ability of the Chinese government to monitor content, BEUC’s formal complaint with the European Commission on Tuesday includes allegations which have received little attention in mainstream coverage in the U.S., including fears that kids are receiving marketing messages in covert ways.

A press release from BEUC explains the organization’s concerns about hashtag challenges and other marketing initiatives on TikTok, emphasis ours:

TikTok fails to protect children and teenagers from hidden advertising and potentially harmful content on its platform. TikTok’s marketing offers to companies who want to advertise on the app contributes to the proliferation of hidden marketing. Users are for instance triggered to participate in branded hashtag challenges where they are encouraged to create content of specific products. As popular influencers are often the starting point of such challenges the commercial intent is usually masked for users. TikTok is also potentially failing to conduct due diligence when it comes to protecting children from inappropriate content such as videos showing suggestive content which are just a few scrolls away.

TikTok received extreme scrutiny in the U.S. under the Trump regime but the Biden administration has signaled it’s ready to let the social media company operate without a forced sale of its American wing. But concerns about TikTok aren’t going away, and Europe’s consumer watchdogs and advocacy groups are taking a different approach to applying scrutiny on the app, which is tremendously popular with kids.

“In just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media apps with millions of users across Europe. But TikTok is letting its users down by breaching their rights on a massive scale,” Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC, said in a press release.

“We have discovered a whole series of consumer rights infringements and therefore filed a complaint against TikTok,” Goyens continued.

TikTok and its parent company Bytedance did not respond to a request for comment early Tuesday.

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“Children love TikTok but the company fails to keep them protected. We do not want our youngest ones to be exposed to pervasive hidden advertising and unknowingly turned into billboards when they are just trying to have fun,” Goyens wrote.

The focus on how children interact with the app is perhaps appropriate, given the app’s user base, but it’s not at all clear that concerns about marketing to children would gain my traction in the U.S. American regulators have cracked down on tobacco and unhealthy food advertising to kids in recent decades, but there are relatively few protections for American kids compared to their European counterparts.

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“Together with our members - consumer groups from across Europe - we urge authorities to take swift action,” said Goyens. “They must act now to make sure TikTok is a place where consumers, especially children, can enjoy themselves without being deprived of their rights.”

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

DISCUSSION

gommerthus
gommerthus

While EU has the right idea on privacy, it’s also easy to see why there are hardly any tech companies there.

It feels like any new ideas that buck the trends don’t have a home in the EU. They far more likely start up in other countries. I remember seeing that the EU attitude towards technology in general is a distrustful one. So anything new that’s made is seen with a jaded and suspicious eye.