A local consumer watchdog in China has called out Tencent Holdings’ WeChat for making it difficult for users to turn off personalised advertising or dismiss individual ads.

The Shanghai Consumer Council released a report on Wednesday highlighting problems with mobile advertising in various Chinese apps, although WeChat was the only prominent app named.

The report criticised the inability to dismiss ads on WeChat with a single click. When collapsing an ad in the popular messenger app, users must choose “not interested” and then pick a reason. WeChat’s personalised advertising, which relies on collected data to target users based on their interests, is also “extremely complicated” to disable, according to the council.

Rather than allowing users to turn off the feature from within the app, users have to scroll to the bottom of the apps’s privacy policy before being forwarded to a webpage, where they have to log in to their account again. The toggle to turn off personalised ads is “extremely covert”, and the process is loaded with “trivial” details, the council said.

Since jumping through all these hoops only disables personalised ads, the council noted that users will still see ads, albeit less relevant ones. However, the feature only stays turned off for six months before automatically being turned back on. The council recommended that users be allowed to permanently disable personalised ads.

Commenting about the report on microblogging site Weibo, state-run media outlet People’s Daily said that regulators need to be a “visible hand” that helps users “turn off ads that can’t be turned off”.

When asked about the council’s findings, a Tencent spokeswoman told the Post that the company operates in strict compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Tencent is “committed to continuously improving its products and services to enhance user experience,” she added.

The report comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of data collection by large tech firms, both in China and around the world. Personalised ads are a common business model in the industry, and global tech firms like Google and Facebook also allow users to disable the feature.

But data collection has raised questions about privacy and the role it plays in helping some tech firms maintain dominant market positions. This has led to recent actions in the US and China to curb alleged anticompetitive behaviours.

Online ads are also coming under increasing scrutiny this year. New draft laws on antitrust and user data protection could soon outlaw common industry practices that helped the nation’s internet titans grow to where they are today.

“The targeted deployment and real-time bidding in mobile advertising are achieved on the premise of acquiring a large amount of user information,” the Shanghai Consumer Council said. “It has great impact on the protection of consumers’ personal information.”

The Shanghai Consumer Council also raised questions about what types of data WeChat uses to inform its personalised ads. According to its terms of service, WeChat does not use chat records for personalised advertising. “Does that mean all other user content except chat records could be collected and used by WeChat?” the council asked.

Despite recent moves by regulators and the Covid-19 pandemic that led to an economic contraction in the first quarter, China’s digital advertising market has continued to expand this year. While growth in the market as slowed this year, eMarketer projected in a report in June that China’s digital ad market would grow 5 per cent this year to US$75.3 billion.

Compared with advertising on other Chinese platforms, WeChat has traditionally been seen by users as restrained in its monetisation efforts. It only started showing ads in 2015, four years after Tencent launched the app.

Until 2018, users saw just one ad per day on the Moments feed, where users see updates from their friends, similar to Facebook’s News Feed. Some social media users still say that ads on WeChat remain much less annoying than on other popular apps.

Other advertising practices have also been put under the spotlight in China recently. Regulators clamped down on web browsers in October, calling rampant pop-up ads a problem that needed to be addressed.

Authorities also met with 27 major Chinese internet companies to ask them to bring order to the online economy, including a request to “strictly regulate” ad publishing and to stop false advertising and vulgar content.