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TikTok surprises users by making personalized ads mandatory

On April 15, TikTok’s ad targeting will get more aggressive.

A person in a hoodie holds up a smartphone with the logo of Chinese social network TikTok, on January 21, 2021, in Nantes, western France.
TikTok users used to be able to opt out of personalized ads. Soon, they won’t.
Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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If you have a TikTok account and you don’t like getting targeted ads, you soon may not have a choice. Starting April 15, the company’s personalized ads policy is changing — as are users’ options to opt out of them, it seems.

Currently, you can opt out of receiving personalized ads on TikTok. Those ads are based on your “interests,” as inferred by the things you watch and look up on the app itself. According to a notice TikTok users are starting to see on their feeds, however, it appears that this personalization will soon be mandatory.

TikTok’s notice to users that they’re about to get personalized ads whether they like it or not.
TikTok’s notice to users that they’re about to get personalized ads whether they like it or not.

According to this notice, you’ll no longer be able to opt out of personalized ads based on the data TikTok collects from your actions on the app, though you will be able to opt out of ads based on data TikTok gets from its “advertising partners.” The only exception here is users based in the European Union, which is covered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and requires businesses to get users’ consent.

“Our goal is to help businesses reach the people they care about in a creative and meaningful way, while also respecting the privacy of our users,” TikTok told Recode. “As our advertising platform matures, we continue to be transparent with our users about their choices with respect to personalized advertising on our platform.”

TikTok has been steadily increasing its ad business. According to a recent Reuters report, advertiser interest and spend on the platform ballooned once President Trump, who tried to ban the app over its perceived connections to the Chinese government, lost the election. Advertisers spend more on targeted ads, so giving users the ability to opt out of them means TikTok makes that much less revenue. Forcing them on users means TikTok makes that much more.

But TikTok’s new policy isn’t really any different from its social media rivals. Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter allow users to opt out of ads based on data collected from third parties or from the tracking those platforms do on other websites and apps. There’s no way to opt out of being targeted based on your actions within their own apps, though users can manually delete whatever interests the apps have assigned to them if they want to minimize this targeting. TikTok currently does not give users the ability to do this. It’s unclear if the company will add this ability once the new policy takes effect.

“We will continue to be transparent about our data privacy practices and help users understand their privacy choices on our Safety Center,” TikTok said.

TikTok didn’t tell Recode what motivated the change, but it’s likely no coincidence that this new policy comes as Apple prepares to roll out an update to iOS 14 that will require apps to get users’ permission to track them across other apps. This cross-app tracking, typically done through pieces of code that companies like Facebook and Google plant in seemingly unrelated apps, is a major source of revenue for mobile apps — and a major source of data about their users.

Fearing that few users will choose to be tracked when Apple’s update forces apps to present them with the option, companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep their personalized ad business model going. You may have noticed this pop-up on Instagram, for instance, which strongly urges users to “make ads more personalized” for a “better ads experience.”

Instagram is now asking users for permission to track them across other apps and websites — though it presents this as a “better ads experience.”
Instagram is now asking users for permission to track them across other apps and websites — though it presents this as a “better ads experience.”

As the notice says, you’re giving Instagram permission to track your activity across other apps and websites so the app can build a comprehensive profile of you and your interests, and sell ads based on them.

The data those apps get directly from their own users is still fine to collect and advertise to, so it makes sense that TikTok would want to make sure it can get as much of that as possible before its other data streams dry up.

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