TikTok opens transparency center as lawmakers weigh in on US ban
TikTok is eyeing the barrel of an outright ban in the US. It has already been banned on federal employee devices, blocked by dozens of universities across the country, and lawmakers are calling for its removal from US app stores.
It was in this context that I and a handful of other journalists were invited to the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles earlier this week for the first media tour of its “Transparency and Accountability Center”. It’s a space that, like the political discussion on TikTok these days, seems more about virtue signaling than anything else. Company officials say the center is designed for regulators, academics and auditors to learn more about how the app works and its security practices. We were told that a politician-who-would-not-be-named had visited it the day before. TikTok eventually plans to open more centers in Washington, DC, Dublin and Singapore.
Our tour was part of a weeks-long press blitz by TikTok to push Project Texas, a new proposal to the US government that would partition US user data instead of a full ban. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was in DC last week to give a similar speech to policymakers and think tanks. In March, he is expected to testify for the first time before Congress.
TikTok isn’t the first struggling tech company to rely on the spectacle of a physical space during a PR crisis. In 2018, Facebook invited journalists to tour its election “War Room,” which was really just a glorified conference room filled with employees watching social media feeds and dashboards. Photos were taken, stories were written, and then the War Room was closed about a month later.
Similarly, TikTok’s Transparency Center is a lot of smoke and mirrors designed to look like it’s really is concerned. Large touchscreens explain how TikTok operates at a high level, along with a broad overview of the kind of trust and safety efforts that have become table stakes for any major platform.
A key difference, however, is a room that my tour group was not allowed to enter. Behind a wall with Death Star-like mood lighting, TikTok officials said a server room hosted the app’s source code for outside auditors to view. examine. Anyone who enters is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, go through metal detectors and put their phone in a storage locker. (It was unclear who exactly would be allowed into the room.)
The interactive part of the center that I was able to experience included a room with iMacs running a fictional version of the software that TikTok says its moderators use to review content. There was another room with iMacs running “code simulators.” While this sounded intriguing, it was really just a basic explanation of TikTok’s algorithm that seemed designed to be grasped by a typical member of Congress. Close-up photos of computer screens were not permitted. And despite being called a transparency hub, TikTok’s public relations department has made sure everyone pledges not to directly quote or attribute comments from employees leading the tour.
On the moderator’s workstation, I was shown potentially infringing videos to review, along with basic information such as the accounts that posted them and the number of likes and shares for each video. When I stopped one of the men speaking to the camera with the caption “world brings up 9/11 to justify Muslims as t3rrori$ts”, the moderation system asked me to select if he was violating one of three policies, including one on “threats and incitement to violence”.
At the iMac Code Simulator in the other room, I was hoping to learn more about how TikTok’s recommendation system actually works. It was, after all, a physical place where you had to go. Surely there would be some kind of information that I couldn’t find anywhere else?
Here’s what I got: TikTok starts by using a “coarse machine learning model” to select “a subset of a few thousand videos” from the billions hosted by the app. Then an “average machine learning model further reduces the recall pool to a smaller pool of videos” that will interest you. Finally, a “thin machine learning model” makes the final pass before serving videos it thinks you’re going to like in your For You page.
The information displayed was hopelessly vague. A slide states that TikTok “recommends content by ranking videos based on a combination of factors, including the interests new users convey to TikTok the first time they interact with the app, as well as how preferences over time. This is exactly how one would expect it to work.
TikTok first tried to open this transparency center in 2020, when then-President Donald Trump tried to ban the app and Kevin Mayer served as its CEO for three months. But then the pandemic happened, delaying the opening of the center until now.
Over the past three years, TikTok’s trust deficit in DC has only worsened, fueled by growing anti-China sentiment that started on the right and has since become more bipartisan. The worst revelation came in late December, when the company confirmed that employees improperly accessed the location data of several US journalists as part of an internal leak investigation. That same month, FBI Director Chris Wray warned that China could use TikTok to “manipulate the content and, if desired, use it for influence operations.”
TikTok’s answer to these concerns is Project Texas, a highly technical and unprecedented plan that would separate most of TikTok’s US operations from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. To make Project Texas a reality, TikTok is leaning on Oracle, whose billionaire founder Larry Ellison leveraged his connections as an influential Republican donor to personally secure Trump’s blessing in the first phase of negotiations. (No one from Oracle was present at the briefing I attended, and my request to speak with someone there for this story was not answered.)
I was given a brief overview of the Texas project before the tour, but was asked not to quote the employees who presented directly. A graphic I was shown featured a Supreme Court-like building with five pillars showing the problems Project Texas is supposed to solve: organization design, data protection and access control, technical assurance, content assurance, compliance and monitoring.
TikTok says it has already taken thousands of people and more than $1.5 billion to create the Texas project. The effort involves TikTok creating a separate legal entity called USDS with an independent board from ByteDance that reports directly to the US government. More than seven external auditors, including Oracle, will review all data going in and out of the US version of TikTok. Only US user data will be available to train the algorithm in the US, and TikTok says there will be strict compliance requirements for any internal access to US data. If the proposal is approved by the government, maintenance will cost TikTok between $700 million and $1 billion a year.
Whether or not Project Texas satisfies the government, it certainly seems like it will make working at TikTok more difficult. The US version of TikTok will have to be completely deconstructed, rebuilt and released by Oracle to US app stores. Oracle will also need to review each application update. Duplicate roles will be created for TikTok in the US, even if the same roles already exist for TikTok elsewhere. And app performance could suffer when Americans interact with users and content in other countries, because US user data must be handled inside the country.
A name that was not mentioned during the entire briefing: ByteDance. I felt like TikTok employees felt uncomfortable talking about their relationship with their parent company.
While ByteDance was not directly acknowledged, its ties to TikTok were not hidden either. The Wi-Fi in the building I was in was called ByteDance, and the screens in the Transparency Center conference rooms showed Lark, the internal communications tool developed by ByteDance for its employees around the world. At one point during the tour, I tried to ask what would hypothetically happen if, once the Texas project was on, a Bytedance employee in China made an uncomfortable request to an employee of the American TikTok entity. A member of TikTok’s PR team quickly told me the question was inappropriate for the tour.
Ultimately, I felt that, like its powerful algorithm, TikTok built its transparency center to show people what it thinks they want to see. The company seems to have realized that it would not save itself from a US ban on the technical merits of its proposed Project Texas. The debate is now purely political and optical. Unlike the tour I did, this is something TikTok can’t control.