Why Google thought twice about restoring your privacy.
Federal regulators detailed tactics the company, which settled accusations against it, used to try to make its most active users go to the movies less.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the sleeper was not safe for infants because of the risk of suffocation.
The pandemic abruptly closed the agency’s 1,200 offices, and officials are considering how to move forward. One issue: Without the offices, fewer low-income seniors sought benefits.
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.
Virginia, Florida, Arkansas and Maryland are among dozens of states that have introduced bills to curtail the power of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Your car may have been towed for legitimate reasons — you parked in a loading zone, for instance. But in some cases, you may have been the victim of a towing company looking to earn fees.
The chief executive of Peloton said the company “made a mistake” by initially resisting a U.S. safety agency’s warning about the devices last month.
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The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it was aware of 38 injuries and one death related to Peloton’s Tread+ machine. The company said its product is safe.
Google’s historical collection of location data has got it into hot water in Australia where a case brought by the country’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has led to a federal court ruling that the tech giant misled consumers by operating a confusing dual-layer of location settings in what the regulator describes as a “world-first enforcement action”.
The case relates to personal location data collected by Google through Android mobile devices between January 2017 and December 2018.
Per the ACCC, the court ruled that “when consumers created a new Google Account during the initial set-up process of their Android device, Google misrepresented that the ‘Location History’ setting was the only Google Account setting that affected whether Google collected, kept or used personally identifiable data about their location”.
“In fact, another Google Account setting titled ‘Web & App Activity’ also enabled Google to collect, store and use personally identifiable location data when it was turned on, and that setting was turned on by default,” it wrote.
The Court also ruled that Google misled consumers when they later accessed the ‘Location History’ setting on their Android device during the same time period to turn that setting off because it did not inform them that by leaving the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting switched on, Google would continue to collect, store and use their personally identifiable location data.
“Similarly, between 9 March 2017 and 29 November 2018, when consumers later accessed the ‘Web & App Activity’ setting on their Android device, they were misled because Google did not inform them that the setting was relevant to the collection of personal location data,” the ACCC added.
Similar complaints about Google’s location data processing being deceptive — and allegations that it uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes — have been raised by consumer agencies in Europe for years. And in February 2020 the company’s lead data regulator in the region finally opened an investigation. However that probe remains ongoing.
Whereas the ACCC said today that it will be seeking “declarations, pecuniary penalties, publications orders, and compliance orders” following the federal court ruling. Although it added that the specifics of its enforcement action will be determined “at a later date”. So it’s not clear exactly when Google will be hit with an order — nor how large a fine it might face.
The tech giant may also seek to appeal the court ruling.
Google said today it’s reviewing its legal options and considering a “possible appeal” — highlighting the fact the Court did not agree wholesale with the ACCC’s case because it dismissed some of the allegations (related to certain statements Google made about the methods by which consumers could prevent it from collecting and using their location data, and the purposes for which personal location data was being used by Google).
Here’s Google’s statement in full:
“The court rejected many of the ACCC’s broad claims. We disagree with the remaining findings and are currently reviewing our options, including a possible appeal. We provide robust controls for location data and are always looking to do more — for example we recently introduced auto delete options for Location History, making it even easier to control your data.”
While Mountain View denies doing anything wrong in how it configures location settings — while simultaneously claiming it’s always looking to improve the controls it offers its users — Google’s settings and defaults have, nonetheless, got it into hot water with regulators before.
Back in 2019 France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, fined it $57M over a number of transparency and consent failures under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. That remains the largest GDPR penalty issued to a tech giant since the regulation came into force a little under three years ago — although France has more recently sanctioned Google $120M under different EU laws for dropping tracking cookies without consent.
Australia, meanwhile, has forged ahead with passing legislation this year that directly targets the market power of Google (and Facebook) — passing a mandatory news media bargaining code in February which aims to address the power imbalance between platform giants and publishers around the reuse of journalism content.
The Baltimore plant that recently had to scrap up to 15 million ruined doses had flouted rules and downplayed errors, according to internal audits, ex-employees and clients. Other doses had to be scrapped last year.
The Baltimore plant that recently had to scrap up to 15 million ruined doses had flouted rules and downplayed errors, according to internal audits, ex-employees and clients. Other doses had to be scrapped last year.
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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.
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.
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