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TikTok Preparing A US Copy Of App’s Core Algorithm: Sources

TikTok is working on developing a clone of its recommendation algorithm for its 170 million U.S. users.


TikTok is developing a clone of its recommendation algorithm for its 170 million U.S. users, a version that would operate independently from its Chinese parent company and could be more acceptable to U.S. lawmakers who want to ban TikTok, according to sources with direct knowledge of the effort.

The source code split, ordered late last year by TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance, came before a bill to force the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations that began gaining momentum in Congress this year and was passed in April.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the short-video-sharing app, said a code split could set the stage for a sale of U.S. assets, but that there are no such plans at present.

TikTok declined to comment. The company has previously said it has no plans to sell its U.S. assets and that such a move would be impossible.

TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance filed suit in U.S. federal court in May, seeking to block the law that would force them to divest or ban the app by Jan. 19. A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday set an expedited timeline to hear legal challenges to the new law.

Millions of lines of code

Over the past few months, hundreds of ByteDance and TikTok engineers in both the United States and China have been ordered to isolate millions of lines of code and scrutinize the companies’ algorithms that match users with the videos they like. Their mission is to create a separate code base independent of the systems used by ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok, known as Douyin, and to scrutinize any information linked to Chinese users, two sources with direct knowledge of the project told Reuters.

The plan, which has not been previously reported, offers a rare glimpse into what a technical separation of TikTok’s U.S. operations might look like and indicates how far the company will go to address the bipartisan political risks it faces. President Biden and supporters of the bill argue that TikTok has given the Chinese government too much access to data that could be used to spy on or influence TikTok’s U.S. users.

Reuters previously reported that the chances of an app with an algorithm being sold were slim: the Chinese government added content recommendation algorithms to its export control list in 2020, requiring any sale or transfer of TikTok’s algorithm to go through an administrative permit process.

According to court documents, the source code for TikTok’s recommendation engine was originally developed by ByteDance engineers in China and then customized for TikTok’s operations in various global markets, including the United States.

ByteDance attributes TikTok’s popularity to the effectiveness of its recommendation engine, which shows each user a content feed based on how they interact with the content they watch.

‘Open Source’

The complexity of the operation, which sources described to Reuters as tedious “dirty work,” highlights the difficulty of slicing up the underlying code that ties TikTok’s U.S. operations to its Chinese parent company. The work is expected to take more than a year to complete, the sources said.

TikTok and ByteDance have vowed to fight the US law in court on First Amendment grounds, but sources said engineers have been instructed to continue working to separate TikTok’s US recommendation engine from ByteDance’s broader network.

An earlier plan to isolate U.S. user data, known as Project Texas, failed to please U.S. regulators and lawmakers, and the company is now trying to double down on efforts to demonstrate that its U.S. operations are independent from its Chinese owners.

At one point, TikTok executives considered open-sourcing parts of the company’s algorithm — making it accessible and available for others to modify — in a show of technical transparency, according to sources.

Executives communicated plans and provided updates on the code-splitting project in all-team meetings, internal planning documents and an internal communications system called “Lark,” according to one of the sources who attended the meetings and another who viewed the messages.

Reuters could not independently verify the internal messages.

The effort is complicated by compliance and legal issues involved in determining which parts of the code can be handed over to TikTok, one of the sources said, adding that each line of code needs to be reviewed to determine whether it can be rolled into a separate code base.

The goal is to create a new source code repository for the recommendation algorithm that will be provided exclusively to TikTok US. Once complete, TikTok US will run and maintain the recommendation algorithm independently from other regional TikTok apps and the Chinese version, Douyin. The move will separate TikTok from the vast engineering and development muscle of its Beijing parent company, the sources said.

The sources added that TikTok management is aware of the risk that if TikTok completes the work of separating its recommendation engine from the Chinese version, it may not be able to deliver the same level of performance as the existing TikTok, as TikTok US relies heavily on ByteDance engineers in China to update and maintain its code base to maximize user engagement.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)