TikTok Works to Change Reputation on Privacy as It Faces US Ban

(Bloomberg) -- TikTok, the app that faces three congressional bills that could result in its restriction or ban in the US, is trying to take control of the narrative.

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As part of efforts to prove that it’s not a “Trojan Horse” for the Chinese government, as one of the proposed bills describes it, TikTok is opening a Transparency and Accountability Center at its Los Angeles headquarters.

Policymakers and security experts are concerned about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company, ByteDance Ltd., and whether that connection could mean the government could access users’ data or influence the videos they see on their feeds. Executives have assured regulators that TikTok is implementing strict security protocols, but that trust has been eroded by a number of high-profile scandals, including the inappropriate access of US users’ data by ByteDance employees.

The center, which doesn’t directly address the China question, nevertheless aims to help outsiders understand how the app works, with various stations including touch screens that illustrate how its algorithm and content moderation tools operate. One installment, for instance, gives visitors a chance to experience the decision-making process for a TikTok moderator who is presented with a type of content that has been reported to the company for potentially violating policies.

At the center, TikTok aims to answer basic questions about the app’s inner workings for people who might have a say in its future — like politicians, regulators, data privacy experts and journalists.

The company is also updating its rules around account suspensions, adding a new strikes system that means users who continually violate the same rule or abuse the same feature on the app will face a permanent ban.

On Tuesday, journalists invited to tour the facility heard from Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas, who has represented TikTok’s interests in the US and has previously been called to testify before Congress. She emphasized that building consumer trust is a top priority. “This is an area of commitment for us,” she said. “You’ll often hear about it whether you work inside or outside the company as this being our No. 1 priority.”

Yet during the 40-minute presentation, which included perspectives from three other executives, none specifically addressed China or discussed other recent security vulnerabilities. Beyond the bills in Congress, TikTok is undergoing an intensive US national security review.

TikTok has argued for years that its user data is secure, but has also developed a own plan to dispel those concerns and satisfy US authorities. The company is now taking an aggressive approach to promote the strategy to the public.

Known as Project Texas, the plan includes a partnership with Oracle Corp. to store all of its US user data. There will also be a series of regular third-party audits and reviews to ensure the company is adhering to its promises. TikTok previously stored US user data on servers in Singapore and Virgina, a spokesperson said, and is in the process of deleting that data now that it has been copied over to Oracle servers.

Without mentioning China, executives did tout Project Texas, saying the company has already spent $1.5 billion on the privacy plan and estimates it will cost between $700 million and $1 billion annually once it is fully operational.

One door was off limits to the media at the Transparency Center: a secure server room where third-party vendors or partners, like Oracle, could come and review TikTok’s code, according to a spokesperson. In order to cross the threshold, one would need to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

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