TikTok Developing Independent Algorithm for US Market

May 30 – TikTok is working on a separate version of its recommendation algorithm for its 170 million U.S. users. This effort aims to create a version that operates independently of its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, in hopes of addressing concerns from American lawmakers who seek to ban the app, according to sources familiar with the project.

Splitting the Code

ByteDance ordered the code separation late last year, even before a recent bill aimed at forcing the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations gained momentum in Congress. The bill, which became law in April, could lead to the divestiture of TikTok’s U.S. assets, although no plans are currently in place for such a sale.

TikTok’s Legal Battle

TikTok has previously stated it has no plans to sell its U.S. assets, deeming such a move impossible. After the publication of this story, TikTok claimed the report was misleading and factually inaccurate, without specifying the inaccuracies. They highlighted a passage from their federal lawsuit, asserting that the “qualified divestiture” demanded by the new law is unfeasible commercially, technologically, and legally within the 270-day timeline required by the Act.

TikTok and ByteDance are suing to block the law, which mandates the sale or ban of the app by January 19. A U.S. appeals court has fast-tracked the legal challenges to this new law.

Engineering the Split

In recent months, hundreds of engineers from ByteDance and TikTok in both the U.S. and China have been tasked with separating millions of lines of code. Their goal is to create a standalone code base for TikTok’s U.S. recommendation engine, independent from the system used by ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin. This effort aims to eliminate any information linking to Chinese users.

This complex task, described as tedious and involving significant technical challenges, is expected to take over a year to complete. The separation will involve creating a new source code repository specifically for the U.S. market, ensuring TikTok U.S. operates independently of its parent company.

Political and Technical Challenges

U.S. President Biden and other supporters of the new law argue that TikTok gives the Chinese government too much access to data, which could be used to spy on or influence American users. ByteDance has credited TikTok’s popularity to its effective recommendation engine, which customizes content feeds based on user interactions.

The Chinese government has made it difficult to sell TikTok’s algorithm by adding content recommendation algorithms to its export-control list in 2020. This means any sale would require approval through administrative licensing procedures.

The Future of TikTok U.S.

If TikTok succeeds in creating an independent recommendation engine for its U.S. users, it could face challenges maintaining the same level of performance without the support of ByteDance’s engineers in China. This potential separation underscores the lengths TikTok is willing to go to address political risks and continue operating in the U.S. market.

Despite ongoing legal battles, TikTok is committed to showing that its U.S. operations can be independent of its Chinese owner, even considering open sourcing parts of its algorithm to demonstrate transparency. The company continues to work under orders to disentangle its U.S. recommendation engine from ByteDance’s broader network, striving to comply with U.S. regulations and address lawmakers’ concerns.

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