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TikTok hit with consumer, child safety and privacy complaints in Europe

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TikTok is facing a fresh round of regulatory complaints in Europe where consumer protection groups have filed a series of coordinated complaints alleging multiple breaches of EU law.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has lodged a complaint against the video sharing site with the European Commission and the bloc’s network of consumer protection authorities, while consumer organisations in 15 countries have alerted their national authorities and urged them to investigate the social media giant’s conduct, BEUC said today.

The complaints include claims of unfair terms, including in relation to copyright and TikTok’s virtual currency; concerns around the type of content children are being exposed to on the platform; and accusations of misleading data processing and privacy practices.

Details of the alleged breaches are set out in two reports associated with the complaints: One covering issues with TikTok’s approach to consumer protection, and another focused on data protection and privacy.

Child safety

On child safety, the report accuses TikTok of failing 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,” the BEUC writes in a press release.

TikTok has already faced a regulatory intervention in Italy this year in response to child safety concerns — in that instance after the death of a ten year old girl in the country. Local media had reported that the child died of asphyxiation after participating in a ‘black out’ challenge on TikTok — triggering the emergency intervention by the DPA.

Soon afterwards TikTok agreed to reissue an age gate to verify the age of every user in Italy, although the check merely asks the user to input a date to confirm their age so seems trivially easy to circumvent.

In the BEUC’s report, the consumer rights group draws attention to TikTok’s flimsy age gate, writing that: “In practice, it is very easy for underage users to register on the platform as the age verification process is very loose and only self-declaratory.”

And while it notes TikTok’s privacy policy claims the service is “not directed at children under the age of 13” the report cites a number of studies that found heavy use of TikTok by children under 13 — with BEUC suggesting that children in fact make up “a very big part” of TikTok’s user base.

From the report:

In France, 45% of children below 13 have indicated using the app. In the United Kingdom, a 2020 study from the Office for Telecommunications (OFCOM) revealed that 50% of children between eight and 15 upload videos on TikTok at least weekly. In Czech Republic, a 2019 study found out that TikTok is very popular among children aged 11-12. In Norway, a news article reported that 32% of children aged 10-11 used TikTok in 2019. In the United States, The New York Times revealed that more than one-third of daily TikTok users are 14 or younger, and many videos seem to come from children who are below 13. The fact that many underage users are active on the platform does not come as a surprise as recent studies have shown that, on average, a majority of children owns mobile phones earlier and earlier (for example, by the age of seven in the UK).

A recent EU-backed study also found that age checks on popular social media platforms are “basically ineffective” as they can be circumvented by children of all ages simply by lying about their age.

Terms of use

Another issue raised by the complaints centers on a claim of unfair terms of use — including in relation to copyright, with BEUC noting that TikTok’s T&Cs give it an “irrevocable right to use, distribute and reproduce the videos published by users, without remuneration”.

A virtual currency feature it offers is also highlighted as problematic in consumer rights terms.

TikTok lets users purchase digital coins which they can use to buy virtual gifts for other users (which can in turn be converted by the user back to fiat). But BEUC says its ‘Virtual Item Policy’ contains “unfair terms and misleading practices” — pointing to how it claims an “absolute right” to modify the exchange rate between the coins and the gifts, thereby “potentially skewing the financial transaction in its own favour”.

While TikTok displays the price to buy packs of its virtual coins there is no clarity over the process it applies for the conversion of these gifts into in-app diamonds (which the gift-receiving user can choose to redeem for actual money, remitted to them via PayPal or another third party payment processing tool).

“The amount of the final monetary compensation that is ultimately earned by the content provider remains obscure,” BEUC writes in the report, adding: “According to TikTok, the compensation is calculated ‘based on various factors including the number of diamonds that the user has accrued’… TikTok does not indicate how much the app retains when content providers decide to convert their diamonds into cash.”

“Playful at a first glance, TikTok’s Virtual Item Policy is highly problematic from the point of view of consumer rights,” it adds.

Privacy

On data protection and privacy, the social media platform is also accused of a whole litany of “misleading” practices — including (again) in relation to children. Here the complaint accuses TikTok of failing to clearly inform users about what personal data is collected, for what purpose, and for what legal reason — as is required under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Other issues flagged in the report include the lack of any opt-out from personal data being processed for advertising (aka ‘forced consent’ — something tech giants like Facebook and Google have also been accused); the lack of explicit consent for processing sensitive personal data (which has special protections under GDPR); and an absence of security and data protection by design, among other issues.

We’ve reached out to the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC), which is TikTok’s lead supervisor for data protection issues in the EU, about the complaint and will update this report with any response.

France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, already opened an investigation into TikTok last year — prior to the company shifting its regional legal base to Ireland (meaning data protection complaints must now be funnelled through the Irish DPC as a result of via the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism — adding to the regulatory backlog).

Jef Ausloos, a postdoc researcher who worked on the legal analysis of TikTok’s privacy policy for the data protection complaints, told TechCrunch researchers had been ready to file data protection complaints a year ago — at a time when the platform had no age check at all — but it suddenly made major changes to how it operates.

Ausloos suggests such sudden massive shifts are a deliberate tactic to evade regulatory scrutiny of data-exploiting practices — as “constant flux” can have the effect of derailing and/or resetting research work being undertaken to build a case for enforcement — also pointing out that resource-strapped regulators may be reluctant to bring cases against companies ‘after the fact’ (i.e. if they’ve since changed a practice).

The upshot of breaches that iterate is that repeat violations of the law may never be enforced.

It’s also true that a frequent refrain of platforms at the point of being called out (or called up) on specific business practices is to claim they’ve since changed how they operate — seeking to use that a defence to limit the impact of regulatory enforcement or indeed a legal ruling. (Aka: ‘Move fast and break regulatory accountability’.)

Nonetheless, Ausloos says the complainants’ hope now is that the two years of documentation undertaken on the TikTok case will help DPAs build cases.

Commenting on the complaints in a statement, Monique Goyens, DG of BEUC, said: “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. We have discovered a whole series of consumer rights infringements and therefore filed a complaint against TikTok.

“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.

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

Reached for comment on the complaints, a TikTok spokesperson told us:

Keeping our community safe, especially our younger users, and complying with the laws where we operate are responsibilities we take incredibly seriously. Every day we work hard to protect our community which is why we have taken a range of major steps, including making all accounts belonging to users under 16 private by default. We’ve also developed an in-app summary of our Privacy Policy with vocabulary and a tone of voice that makes it easier for teens to understand our approach to privacy. We’re always open to hearing how we can improve, and we have contacted BEUC as we would welcome a meeting to listen to their concerns.

Update: A Commission spokesperson confirmed it has received BEUC’s alert.

“Consumer rights have to be equally well protected — online and offline. The Commission reaffirmed this also with its New Consumer Agenda, presented at the end of last year,” the spokesperson said, adding: “The European Commission will carefully consider all the elements brought forward by BEUC together with the national consumer authorities in the coming weeks to assess the need for further investigation into the matter.”

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What can ChatGPT do?

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ChatGPT Explained

ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI that is trained on a massive amount of text data. It is capable of generating human-like text and has been used in a variety of applications, such as chatbots, language translation, and text summarization.

One of the key features of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is similar to human writing. This is achieved through the use of a transformer architecture, which allows the model to understand the context and relationships between words in a sentence. The transformer architecture is a type of neural network that is designed to process sequential data, such as natural language.

Another important aspect of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is contextually relevant. This means that the model is able to understand the context of a conversation and generate responses that are appropriate to the conversation. This is accomplished by the use of a technique called “masked language modeling,” which allows the model to predict the next word in a sentence based on the context of the previous words.

One of the most popular applications of ChatGPT is in the creation of chatbots. Chatbots are computer programs that simulate human conversation and can be used in customer service, sales, and other applications. ChatGPT is particularly well-suited for this task because of its ability to generate human-like text and understand context.

Another application of ChatGPT is language translation. By training the model on a large amount of text data in multiple languages, it can be used to translate text from one language to another. The model is able to understand the meaning of the text and generate a translation that is grammatically correct and semantically equivalent.

In addition to chatbots and language translation, ChatGPT can also be used for text summarization. This is the process of taking a large amount of text and condensing it into a shorter, more concise version. ChatGPT is able to understand the main ideas of the text and generate a summary that captures the most important information.

Despite its many capabilities and applications, ChatGPT is not without its limitations. One of the main challenges with using language models like ChatGPT is the risk of generating text that is biased or offensive. This can occur when the model is trained on text data that contains biases or stereotypes. To address this, OpenAI has implemented a number of techniques to reduce bias in the training data and in the model itself.

In conclusion, ChatGPT is a powerful language model that is capable of generating human-like text and understanding context. It has a wide range of applications, including chatbots, language translation, and text summarization. While there are limitations to its use, ongoing research and development is aimed at improving the model’s performance and reducing the risk of bias.

** The above article has been written 100% by ChatGPT. This is an example of what can be done with AI. This was done to show the advanced text that can be written by an automated AI.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

Searchenginejournal.com

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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