Chinese apps give power back to users by adding “turn off recommendation” buttons

March 17, 2022 0 Comments

In the wake of World Consumer Rights Day, many apps in China have offered users an off switch to remove customized recommendations content or advertising. Short video streaming app Douyin, Social apps Weixin, Weibo, Xiahongshu, Shopping app Taobao and others have all released similar features. 

Netizens have long complained about recommendation algorithms, which track users’ behaviors, preferences, and interests in order to generate user profiles and push ads accordingly. Such mechanisms bring users convenience but also can make users feel like their own data is being used against them, as they potentially violate users’ data privacy. 

Now, users can find and adjust their recommendations preferences in each apps’ privacy settings or customization pages. In addition to turning off customized recommendations, they also can learn more about how their data has been collected, which data has been collected, and when it was collected. Users can also find out how/if their data has been used outside of those apps. 

A list of “third party cooperators” in social app Xiaohongshu, detailing which data will be share to whom, and for what purpose.
Photo Credit:PingWest

The change correlates to a previously released regulation by the Cyberspace Administration of China, which states that all algorithm-based recommendation services must be transparent and interpretable to the public. China has been keen on regulating algorithms and the use of data. The first data security law in China went into effect on September 1, 2021, which states that operators have a responsibility to protect users’ personal information and data security. These regulations are pivotal for businesses whose profitability largely depends on their advertising services. 

Notably, apps such as TikTok and WeChat, which are international versions of their Chinese counterparts Douyin and Weixin, have not yet caught up on the changes. In WeChat, no button to turn off customized recommendations can be found, nor does information relating to how data generated in WeChat will be used. 

While in TikTok, there is only a button for controlling “off-TikTok activity for ad targeting”, meaning TikTok can no longer use data provided by advertising partners to tailor ads in TikTok if users switch this off. There is no option to exclude in-TikTok activity from ad-targeting algorithms. “You will always see ads on TikTok based on what you do on TikTok or other data described in the privacy policy,” according to TikTok.

The Ads Personalization setting in TikTok. Photo Credit: PingWest

Photo by Federico Scarionati on Unsplash

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