Tech News : Opting Out Of AI-Targeting

30th August 2023

The EU’s new Digital Services Act allows social media users to opt out of AI personalised content feeds based on relevance.

What Is The DSA? 

The Digital Services Act is a new EU Law designed to protect users. It applies to any digital company operating and serving the EU with “very large online platforms” (those with over 45 million EU users) and very large search engines subject to the toughest rules.

The DSA focuses on five key areas of user protection which are:

1. Illegal products. I.e. platforms will need to stop the sale of illegal products.

2. Illegal content. This means that platforms (e.g. social media platforms) need to take measures stop hate speech, child abuse and harassment, electoral interference and more, whilst safeguarding free speech and data protection.

3. Protection of children. This includes large online platforms and search engines having to take a wide range of measures to protect children, such as protection from being targeted with advertising based on their personal data or cookies, protecting their privacy, redesigning content “recommender systems” to reduce risks to children, and much more.

4. Racial and gender diversity. This means that companies (e.g. the large social media platforms) can’t target users with adverts based on personal date such as race, gender, and religion.

5. Banning so-called “dark patterns.” This means protecting consumers from manipulative practices designed to exploit their vulnerabilities or trick/manipulate them into buying things they don’t need or want and making it difficult for them to cancel. For example, this includes fake timers on deals, hiding information about signing up to a subscription and making subscription cancellation steps too complicated for users.

User Empowerment 

More on the matter of user empowerment, the DSA means that users (e.g. users of social media platforms) now need to be given clear information on why they are recommended certain information and have the right (and a clear way) to opt-out from recommendation systems based on profiling (tracking). This has led to the large social media platforms making changes. For example:

– Meta’s Facebook launching a chronological news Feeds tab (last July) to whereby users can see posts from their friends, groups, pages and more in chronological order, and no longer showing any “Suggested For You” posts. Also, since February, Meta’s apps, including Facebook, have stopped showing ads to users aged 13-17 based on their activity to the apps.

– Google’s YouTube stopping next video recommendations based on profiling for logged in users with the ‘watch history’ feature turned off.

– Instagram introducing a “Not Personalised” option instead of just an ‘Explore’ tab based on algorithmic content selections (personalised – “For you”).

– TikTok rolling out the option for users in Europe opt out from its personalised algorithm-based feed, i.e. as TikTok says, if users opt out of “For You” and “LIVE” feeds, it will instead show “popular videos from both the places where they live and around the world, rather than recommending content to them based on their personal interests”. Also, from July, TikTok stopped showing users in Europe aged 13-17 from being shown personalised ads based on their online activity.

– Snapchat has announced four new measures that it’s taking in the EU to comply with the DSA, including giving users “the ability to better understand why content is being shown to them and have the ability to opt out of a personalised Discover and Spotlight content experience.”

Amazon and Google

With the DSA also affecting very large search engines and companies like Amazon, a couple of examples of how they are complying include:

– Amazon creating a new channel for submitting notices against suspected illegal products and content.

– Google promising to increase data access to increase transparency, helping users to understand more about how Google Search, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Play, and Shopping work.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Tech companies have known about the basic requirements of the DSA for three years and have had four months to comply with the act’s rules. Given the size of the “very large” social media companies and search engines, however, it has required some considerable work (some claiming thousands of staff had been involved), costs, and rethinking and re-organising. The DSA’s rules are far-reaching, while compliance means increased operational costs, e.g. due to necessary investment in technical infrastructure, legal fees, human resources for content moderation, and data governance systems. Also, the stricter regulations on data collection, content, and restrictions on targeting could limit ad-revenues and user-engagement. There’s also the added challenge of a greater workload for social media companies – e.g., with the need for more effective and continuous monitoring, user outreach, and updates.

That said, users may welcome the chance to essentially opt-out of being targeted and many may say that giving greater protection to users, especially children, is long overdue and that legislation appears to have been necessary to make change happen. For the very large tech companies, although they may not be happy with parts of the DSA, they have recognised that compliance is now crucial for sustained market access and legal operation within the EU and the fines for non-compliance are very steep and something (along with the bad publicity) they’d like to avoid (6% of turnover and potential costly suspension of the service).

The new rules have only just come into force, so it remains to be seen how the large tech companies fare going forward in a fast-evolving tech landscape that now has the added complications of AI.