TikTok expands research API to Europe and launches ad transparency library

TikTok has finally launched its ad transparency library — starting with ad data and other commercial content running in Europe but with plans to expand.

Also today it announced the expansion of access to its research API to Europe.

Both steps appear to be intended to help companies comply with entry requirements under the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA). Back in April, the video-sharing social network was confirmed as one of 19 so-called very large online platforms (VLOPs) under the DSA – a designation that carries an additional set of compliance requirements related to algorithmic transparency and accountability.

Bottom line: Section 39 of pan-EU regulations requires VLOPs on which platforms display ads to offer a searchable ad database with information, including who paid for the ad, key targeting parameters and view data. While Article 40 concerns access to data for inspection and other external researchers to further the regulatory objective of ensuring that systemic risks flowing from major platforms can be studied robustly.

“Today, we are extending access to our Research API to Europe and opening up new transparency tools for commercial content,” TikTok wrote in a statement blog post announced launch. “These tools are designed to increase transparency about content on our platforms and are informed through the feedback we hear from researchers and civil society.”

A TikTok spokesperson confirmed that the research API is available to researchers working across Europe, not just those in institutions within the EU – so it’s also open to applications from academics working in the EEA (European Economic Area), Switzerland, and the UK.

The social media platform announced it was developing an API for researchers last summer – when it said it would give selected researchers more transparency about the platform and its moderation system by providing access to public and anonymous data about content and activity in apps. An initial version of the Research API was ready for testing by members of the TikTok Content and Safety Advisory Board in November – before opening to academic researchers in the US earlier this year, in February.

So far, the free API has seen more than 60 applications from US non-profit academic researchers on topics including those related to consumer trends, misinformation and mental health, per TikTok.

The impact of social media platforms on the lives and wellbeing of young people continues to be a topic of discussion and concern in mainstream media. But scientists have warned that we still don’t have solid data to draw firm conclusions — hence the push by EU lawmakers to make the main platform open to outside scrutiny.

TikTok’s approach to research APIs requires researchers to create an account and complete the app under review to ensure criteria are met before granting access. So it said it expects Europe’s first for-profit academic researcher to gain access “in the coming weeks”.

TikTok’s criteria for access to the API require that regional researchers have academic experience and demonstrable expertise in the research areas defined in the app; there is no conflict of interest in connection with the use of the service; clear research proposal; and commit to only use the data for non-commercial purposes.

Also today, it said it is working to be able to give researchers who collaborate with others the ability to work collaboratively on joint research projects. This incoming collaboration feature, which it says was added in response to feedback from early adopters, will be called “Lab Access”.

“More than half of the applications we receive request collaboration with other researchers, so we will soon be allowing up to 10 researchers to work together on joint research projects,” he wrote. “All researchers must have their own TikTok for Developers account and be located in the US or Europe to access our Research API.

“Primary researchers will be able to submit one application for collaborators from the same university. Projects involving multiple universities will need to submit separate applications for each school.”

Advertising transparency at last

Ad transparency library, or “Commercial Content Libraryas TikTok bills it, is a newer initiative—and this launch closes a long-standing transparency gap for the platform.

A critical report on TikTok by Mozilla, in mid-2021, found policy loopholes, lax oversight around influencer marketing, and a lack of a searchable public advertising database made the platform vulnerable to displaying political ads as organic content — rendering TikTok’s official policy of banning political ads meaningless.

Now anyone can search for TikTok ads or other commercial content by country, date and keyword.

However — big caveat! — for the moment only data on commercial goods running in Europe are available. TikTok said it plans to include data from “more countries” in the future (but did not specify where or when).

“The Commercial Content Library is a searchable database with information about paid ads and ad metadata, such as creative, date the ad was shown, key parameters used for targeting (e.g. age, gender), number of people who received the ad, and more,” said TikTok.

The tool also includes information about other content that is “commercial in nature and tagged with a paid partnership or promotional label, such as content that promotes a brand, product, or service but is not paid advertising” — so TikTok also includes influence marketing in its database (or at least if an influencer has tagged their videos correctly).

Some of the “paid partnerships” seen by millions of TikTok users in Spain listed under “other commercial content” in the TikTok database (Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/Zero2Billions)

“We tested an early version of the Commercial Content Library with researchers and civil society to gather feedback over the last few months before making it more widely available,” added TikTok. “From our tests and feedback from experts, we’ve added the ability to perform precise searches, include more targeting parameters, and improved data quality — among other updates.”

TikTok also provides access to the Commercial Content API to allow researchers to query the ad database.

“Researchers need to create a TikTok Developer account and submit an application to access the Commercial Content API we are reviewing to help prevent bad actors from misusing this data,” he added.

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