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Axios has learned that Oracle has started inspecting TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models to make sure they aren’t being manipulated by Chinese authorities.
Why it’s important
This effort aims to reassure lawmakers that TikTok’s American platform is free from interference from the Chinese Communist Party.
ByteDance, a major Chinese tech company, owns TikTok. In 2017, ByteDance acquired the American lip-syncing app Musical.ly and combined it with its own version of a related app called TikTok. Since then, interest in the app has exploded in the United States.
WHY IT CAME UP
- Catch up quickly: In June, TikTok announced that it had started routing all of its U.S. user data to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure in response to persistent pressure from the U.S. government. In response to a letter from Republican senators asking about its protection of U.S. user data, it also hinted that it would create a partnership with an outside company to oversee its algorithms, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.
- The big picture: Both of those actions are a part of a larger TikTok initiative called Project Texas, which aims to reassure lawmakers and American TikTok users that their data is secure and that content recommendations aren’t being changed. The Oracle corporate office in Texas is mentioned in the project’s name. TikTok has been separating the backend functions and code for its US operations for more than a year as it gets ready for Project Texas. A spokesperson for TikTok confirmed to Axios that the new arrangement allows Oracle to “regularly vet and validate” its content recommendation and moderation models.
- The reviews officially started last week, according to a source who spoke to Axios, now that all new U.S. user traffic is being diverted to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure. (When TikTok will complete moving all of its previous user data from the United States to Oracle’s cloud is still unknown.)
- To make sure that results are in line with expectations and that the models have not been altered in any way, the reviews give Oracle visibility into how TikTok’s algorithms surface content.
- According to a 2019 Guardian article, TikTok had previously censored content in a way that complemented Beijing’s foreign policy messages. According to TikTok, its guidelines for content moderation have changed since then.
- Between the lines: According to a spokesperson for Oracle, regular audits of TikTok’s content moderation procedures will be conducted, including both manual and automated processes.
- Last month, TikTok announced that later this year, it would make anonymized public data on the platform’s algorithm and content moderation process available to a select group of researchers.
The spokesperson added that granting Oracle access “will ensure that content continues to be flagged and actioned appropriately based on our Community Guidelines and no other factors.”
- Be wise: In the past, TikTok has publicly explained how its algorithm functions, but recently, lawmakers have expressed concerns about how the algorithm is moderated and who has access to the data that is used to support its recommendations.
- According to a BuzzFeed report from June, lawmakers were left perplexed after learning that Chinese authorities had repeatedly accessed American user data.
According to a spokesperson for TikTok, the report demonstrates that the company is “exactly doing what it said it would: addressing concerns about U.S. user data access by employees outside the U.S.”
- The big picture: In order to thwart a plan by then-president Donald Trump to outlaw TikTok due to national security concerns, an alliance between Oracle and TikTok was arranged in 2020.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which initially ordered ByteDance to sell TikTok in 2020, may have concerns that the partnership won’t be able to allay.