With talk of government bans swirling in the US federal government and assorted localities, TikTok opened the doors to the first of its “transparency centers” in Los Angeles recently. The centers are open to the public and offer an assortment of activities meant to provide insight into TikTok’s inner workings, including access to a server room that allows for examination of source code.
TikTok has already been banned in a number of countries, including India and Taiwan, for a number of reasons. Government bans have been discussed under both the Trump and Biden administrations in the US now, and some states have already told government agencies and employees that they can no longer have the app on work devices.
Los Angeles transparency center opened on February 2 to journalists
The transparency center project was first announced in early 2020, with additional locations in Washington D.C., Dublin and Singapore (where TikTok silos and processes some US user data). The project was put on hold due to the outbreak of Covid-19, and the Los Angeles center is the first to open.
The transparency centers are something like a visitor center, but aimed more at legislators and the media and only available by appointment. The Los Angeles center provides a variety of interactive kiosks that highlight how creators and influencers use the platform, how data privacy and security are handled and how moderators approach content filtering. A server room is also present that allows visitors to examine the platform’s source code, though a non-disclosure agreement must be signed to access this particular element.
TikTok’s fortunes in the US have been in doubt for some time now. The talk of government bans started with the Trump administration, which proposed the extreme step of ordering Apple and Google to delist the app from their digital stores. TikTok was able to stave this off between a changeover to the Biden administration and promises to isolate US user data from Chinese servers. However, subsequent failure to keep that data out of China has both Republicans and Democrats advocating for a ban. Some government agencies and military departments have already banned the app for employees, as have certain state governments.
The root of the issue is not so much anything TikTok has specifically done, but concerns about the level of reach the Chinese government has into the app. The nation’s security laws allow it to compel companies there to turn over stored data, without a warrant or much of a legal oversight process. Data stored on Chinese servers is thus assumed to be handed over to the CCP at some point. Some lawmakers have also expressed concern over the potential of China’s government directing TikTok’s algorithm, using the platform to push propaganda or misinformation.
Assorted strategies to avoid government bans have been proposed. One that was first raised under the Trump administration was the forced sale of its US operations to a US-based company; Oracle and several other interested parties were reportedly fairly far along in discussions before the plan was rescinded in favor of guarantees for the security and integrity of US user data. Journalists that attended the Los Angeles transparency center opening indicated that TikTok representatives mentioned that possibility once again.
Aside from the transparency centers, other efforts to improve visibility are in the works: allowing researchers to access the platform API, regular audits, and the establishment of a TikTok US Data Security office to directly handle things like editing and moderation of US content and algorithmic recommendations to US users.
TikTok looks to stave off chain of missteps that has greatly increased chances of government bans
The first was a leak of internal chats in July 2022, which demonstrated that TikTok was violating its promises to keep US user data out of the hands of Chinese engineers. While there was no clear evidence of intentional connection with the Chinese government, the situation appeared to be that the US staff often did not know how to do things and had to hand certain tasks off to the Chinese staff to keep things running.
A full implementation of the “Project Texas” initiative, which would move all US user data to servers maintained by Oracle, might have been sufficient to address that problem. But TikTok crossed another line in late 2022 when it admitted that employees had been monitoring the accounts of journalists in an attempt to catch members of its own staff leaking confidential information.
Talks remain ongoing between TikTok and national security officials over the terms it will eventually be required to acquiesce to. In the meantime, the app faces issues on numerous fronts that the transparency centers will not likely help with and is at even greater risk of government bans. The call for it to be removed from app stores has now been picked up by some Democrats in Congress, with Michael F. Bennet of Colorado writing a letter to that effect sent to Google and Apple. Company CEO Shou Zi Chew will appear before Congress in March to answer pointed questions not just about privacy issues, but rising public concerns about the impact the app has on the mental health of teen and child users. And at least two dozen states have already banned the app from state government and/or state schools, with more discussing the possibility.