Nominees to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau faced questions about the limits of their power but said they wouldn’t shy from flexing it.
Complaints doubled last year, federal data shows. Some problems may be related to pauses in mortgage and student loan payments in the pandemic.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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:
Four years after a man was dragged from a plane, amended rules regarding involuntary bumping and oversold flights are about to be enacted. And there are more changes to come.
A third class action lawsuit has been filed in Europe against Apple seeking compensation — for what Italy’s Altroconsumo consumer protection agency dubs “planned obsolescence” of a number of iPhone 6 models.
The action relates to performance throttling Apple applied several years ago to affected iPhones when the health of the device’s battery had deteriorated — doing so without clearly informing users. It later apologized.
The class action suit in Italy is seeking €60M in compensation — based on at least €60 in average compensation per iPhone owner. Affected devices named in the suit are the iPhone 6, 6S, 6 Plus and 6S Plus, per a press release put out by the umbrella consumer organization, Euroconsumers, which counts Altroconsumo a a member.
The suit is the third to be filed in the region over the issue — following suits filed in Belgium and Spain last month.
A fourth — in Portugal — is slated to be filed shortly.
The tech giant settled similar charges in the US last year — where it was accused of intentionally slowing down the performance of older iPhones to encourage customers to buy newer models or fresh batteries — shelling out $500M, or around $25 per phone, to settle that case (while denying any wrongdoing).
“When consumers buy Apple iPhones, they expect sustainable quality products. Unfortunately, that is not what happened with the iPhone 6 series. Not only were consumers defrauded, and did they have to face frustration and financial harm, from an environmental point of view it is also utterly irresponsible,” said Els Bruggeman, Euroconsumers’ head of policy and enforcement, in a statement.
“This new lawsuit is the latest front in our fight against planned obsolescence in Europe. Our ask is simple: American consumers received compensation, European consumers want to be treated with the same fairness and respect.”
Euroconsumers has produced a video (embedded below) to drum up wider support for the class actions in which it satirizes Apple’s “genius” in coming up with clever ways to accelerate its products’ end of life…
Apple has been contacted for comment on the European class actions.
Almost a year ago the company was fined €25M by France’s competition watchdog over an iOS update that capped performance of aging devices. It was also made to display a statement regarding the action on its website for a month.
A Norwegian group filed a complaint with regulators, saying Amazon had deliberately made it difficult to end memberships to its Prime service. Groups in Europe and the U.S. back the effort.
Amazon’s use of dark patterns that add friction to the process of terminating a Prime subscription is being targeted by 16 consumer rights groups in Europe and the US which are taking coordinated action to urge regulatory intervention.
One of them — Norway’s Consumer Council (NCC) — has also published a report calling out what it describes as the ecommerce giant’s “manipulative” and “unreasonably cumbersome” unsubscribe process for Prime. The report has been punningly titled ‘You can log out, but you can never leave‘.
“It should be as easy to end a subscription as it was to subscribe in the first place. Amazon should facilitate a good user experience instead of hindering customers and tricking them into continuing paid services they do not need or want,” said NCC director of digital policy, Finn Lützow-Holm Myrstad, in a statement.
“In our view, this practice not only betrays the expectations and trust of consumers but breaches European law,” he added.
The Prime subscription is a key tool in Amazon’s arsenal, generating reliably recurring revenue while simultaneously encouraging users to lock themselves in to making additional purchases via the carrot of unlimited ‘free’ fast shipping (which applies to a subset of qualifying items on the marketplace).
Other perks Amazon throws in to juice Prime membership include streaming movies, TV shows, music and games, plus exclusive shopping programs and discounts (though the exact bundle varies by market).
However a lock-in vibe also applies when trying to end a Prime subscription, per the complaints, because Amazon requires users to successfully navigate multiple menus, select from confusingly worded multiple-choice options and scroll past various distracting and/or irrelevant interstitials and dead space in order to locate the button that actually ends their subscription.
And, don’t forget, this is the same company that famously patented a ‘1-click’ button for consumers’ cash to pour into its coffers…
The NCC has made the below video illustrating the various dark patterns Amazon deploys to try to nudge Prime subscribers away from unsubscribing — including a cartoon of a dog barking because, uh, we have no idea tbh…
Complaints against Amazon’s click-heavy process for Prime unsubscribing are being filed by consumer groups in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Norway and the US — so a variety of national and regional consumer protection laws are involved.
The NCC’s complaint, for example, makes reference to Norway’s Marketing Control Act — which implements the EU’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive — providing a framework for “what marketing, commercial practices and terms of service the service providers are allowed to use in different markets”, as it explains in the complaint.
“The Marketing Control Act section 6 implements the general clause in Article 5 of the Directive which states that an unfair commercial practice is banned. What constitutes an unfair commercial practice is defined in the second paragraph of section 6, which states that a commercial practice is unfair if it breaches ‘good business practices’ toward consumers, and is able to significantly alter a consumer’s financial conduct, so that the consumer makes a decision that they would not otherwise have made,” the NCC argues.
Some of the coordinated complaints will be less formal, taking the form of letters written to consumer protection agencies urging them to investigate. In the US, for example, the FTC will be urged to “investigate Amazon’s practices and analyze whether they violate Section 5 of the FTC Act”.
While in Germany the VZBV consumer protection agency told us it’s currently assessing Amazon’s cancellation process for Prime — which it noted “looks a bit different” to the one in the Norwegian complaints — saying it’s not yet clear whether or not it will file a court injunction over the issue.
“Unlike the other consumer organisations taking part in this concerted action, we’re not sending complaints to authorities,” the VZBV spokesperson added. “My employer, the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) is able to send legal warnings and, if demands to cease and desist are not being met, sue companies infringing consumer protection laws in its own capacity. We will do so if there is enough legal merit to this case. But as I said, it is not completely decided yet.”
We contacted Amazon for comment on the complaints against the Prime unsubscribe process and it denied making it unclear and difficult for members to cancel their subscription, arguing that it only takes “a few clicks” online or “a quick phone call”.
Here’s its full statement:
Amazon makes it clear and easy for Prime members to cancel their subscription at any time, whether through a few clicks online, a quick phone call or by turning off auto renew in their membership options. Customer trust is at the heart of all of our products and services and we reject the claim that our cancellation process is unfair or creates uncertainty. We take great pride in the Prime service and the number of ways it makes our members lives easier, but we make it easy for customers to leave whenever they choose to. The information we provide in the online cancellation flow gives a full view of the benefits and services members are cancelling.
Consumer groups banding together to apply pressure on tech giants to change dubious practices is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2018, for example, a number of European groups coordinated complaints against Google’s ‘deceptive’ harvesting of location data. Just under a year ago the Irish Data Protection Commission opened a formal investigation — which remains ongoing.
The flying blades can cause injury and damage property, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said.
As the demand for pets has surged since the arrival of the coronavirus, consumer advocates are warning people to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true.
The F.T.C. recently took its first legal action to stop the fraud. Consumers may not know the debts are on their reports until they apply for a loan.
The government decides to try to enforce antitrust laws.
Emotional support animals are considered pets instead of service animals under the new rules, which go into effect next month.
The Justice Department is opposing Visa’s acquisition of a nascent rival in a step forward for antitrust enforcement.
A scientist tracks the dangers of flame retardants, meant to protect children, and why manufacturers cannot seem to stop using them.
The president-elect has chosen proponents of stronger regulation to begin reviewing financial agencies.
Under President Trump, agencies have eased bans on Wall Street risk-taking and loosened consumer protections and anti-discrimination laws.
Both Republicans and Democrats are pursuing laws to make it easier for people to fix cellphones, cars, even hospital ventilators. In Europe, the movement is further along.
Our columnist investigates whether there is any recourse for a canceled flight booked through STA Travel, which filed for bankruptcy in August.
The federal government’s lawsuit isn’t likely to derail the company’s market dominance.
She took on the drug and hospital industry as California attorney general, seeking consumer relief from anti-competitive pricing.
Pay-advance apps have been downloaded millions of times, and more employers are offering them as benefits to workers who need cash.
Some people don’t have credit or debit cards, so a growing number of state and local governments are requiring businesses to accept cash.
Congress sought to ensure that patients would not face costs connected to the virus. But rules are not always being followed.
Insurers, facing huge losses, have been pulling back from fire-prone areas across California. “The marketplace has largely collapsed,” an advocate for counties in the state said.
The payment platform, in partnership with Synchrony Bank, offers a way to pay tuition at for-profit schools — at terms that are being called “predatory.”
The agency has moved to keep several of the products, which it found to have inadequate concentrations of alcohol, from entering the United States.
The social media company said the agency was examining whether it had misused people’s personal information to serve ads.
Once federal benefits dry up, highly indebted consumers could be forced to file.
A new standard established by the Securities and Exchange Commission may sound better than it actually is, consumer advocates say.
Lenders spent years battling planned new rules that they said would gut a short-term lending market that often leaves borrowers trapped in debt.
Many home fireworks are dangerous for kids and even illegal.
Small businesses say the Twitter chief’s other company is holding on to 30 percent of their customers’ payments during the pandemic.
The warning applies to nine lines of hand sanitizer manufactured in Mexico that contain methanol, or wood alcohol, which can be dangerous, the agency said.
Algorithms that scan everything from terror watch lists to eviction records spit out flawed tenant screening reports. And almost nobody is watching.
Then our columnist intervened with the Boston-based tour operator Overseas Adventure Travel.
Call centers are short staffed, and employees are scattered. Mistakes are inevitable. Document any changes and offers of relief, just to be safe.
If Biden wants to win the White House and govern like a New Dealer, Warren is his indispensable partner.
A former economist at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused Trump appointees of steering the bureau’s reversal on payday lending rules to gut a key provision.
Sometimes products are in stock. Sometimes they aren’t. And delivery times vary widely. A virus-fueled surge in orders has created chaos behind the scenes, and confusion for customers.