TikTok under investigation for failing to protect minors and using algorithms that promote addiction

TikTok on phone

The latest online service to find itself facing scrutiny from the European Commission is TikTok. The Chinese-owned, video-based social media platform faces a probe from the Commission after an initial investigation into whether the company had breached the Digital Services Act (DSA).

Particular areas interest are TikTok's use of algorithms to surface content, with investigators worried about whether they create a "rabbit hole effect" and encourage addictive behavior. TikTok also faces criticisms for various failures to protect younger users, but there are concerns about the overall transparency of the platform, but especially in relation to advertising.

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The European Commission conducted a risk assessment of TikTok late last year, and appears to have unearthed enough of concern to warrant further investigations. The EC says that it has "opened formal proceedings to assess whether TikTok may have breached the Digital Services Act (DSA) in areas linked to the protection of minors, advertising transparency, data access for researchers, as well as the risk management of addictive design and harmful content".

It adds:

On the basis of the preliminary investigation conducted so far, including on the basis of an analysis of the risk assessment report sent by TikTok in September 2023, as well as TikTok's replies to the Commission's formal Requests for Information (on illegal content, protection of minors, and data access), the Commission has decided to open formal proceedings against TikTok under the Digital Services Act.

The probe is being undertaken with the Commission saying that "the protection of minors is a top enforcement priority for the DSA". Margrethe Vestager, the executive VP for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age said:

"The safety and well-being of online users in Europe is crucial. TikTok needs to take a close look at the services they offer and carefully consider the risks that they pose to their users -- young as well as old. The Commission will now carry out an in-depth investigation without prejudice to the outcome".

Announcing its intentions, the European Commission said that the proceedings will focus on a number of areas:

  • The compliance with the DSA obligations related to the assessment and mitigation of systemic risks, in terms of actual or foreseeable negative effects stemming from the design of TikTok's system, including algorithmic systems, that may stimulate behavioural addictions and/ or create so-called 'rabbit hole effects'. Such assessment is required to counter potential risks for the exercise of the fundamental right to the person's physical and mental well-being, the respect of the rights of the child as well as its impact on radicalisation processes. Furthermore, the mitigation measures in place in this respect, notably age verification tools used by TikTok to prevent access by minors to inappropriate content, may not be reasonable, proportionate and effective;
  • The compliance with DSA obligations to put in place appropriate and proportionate measures to ensure a high level of privacy, safety and security for minors, particularly with regard to default privacy settings for minors as part of the design and functioning of their recommender systems;
  • The compliance with DSA obligations to provide a searchable and reliable repository for advertisements presented on TikTok;  
  • The measures taken by TikTok to increase the transparency of its platform. The investigation concerns suspected shortcomings in giving researchers access to TikTok's publicly accessible data as mandated by Article 40 of the DSA.

Image credit: Bongkarn Thanyakij / Dreamstime.com

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