Aug 16, 2022 - Technology

Scoop: Oracle begins auditing TikTok's algorithms

Illustration of the eyes emoji with the Tik Tok logo as the pupils.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Oracle has begun vetting TikTok's algorithms and content moderation models to ensure they aren't manipulated by Chinese authorities, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The effort is meant to provide further assurance to lawmakers that TikTok's U.S. platform operates independently from influence by the Chinese Communist Party.

  • TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. ByteDance bought the U.S. lip-syncing app Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with its version of a similar app called TikTok. The app has since skyrocketed in popularity in the U.S.

Catch up quick: In June, after longstanding pressure from the U.S. government, TikTok said it had begun routing all its U.S. user data to Oracle's cloud infrastructure.

  • It also hinted that it would establish a partnership with an outside firm to oversee its algorithms in a response to a letter from Republican senators inquiring about its protection of U.S. user data, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.

The big picture: Both of those moves are part of a broader TikTok effort called Project Texas, which is meant to give U.S. TikTok users and lawmakers assurance that U.S. user data is safe and content recommendations aren't being manipulated. The project name refers to Oracle's headquarters in Texas.

  • TikTok has been preparing Project Texas for over a year by separating its U.S. operations' backend functions and code.

Details: The new arrangement gives Oracle "regular vetting and validation" of TikTok's content recommendation and moderation models, a spokesperson confirmed to Axios.

  • The reviews, a source told Axios, began officially last week, now that all new U.S. user traffic is being routed to Oracle's cloud infrastructure. (It's still unclear when TikTok will be done migrating all of its previous U.S. user data over to Oracle's cloud, as is expected.)
  • The reviews give Oracle visibility into how TikTok's algorithms surfaces content "to ensure that outcomes are in line with expectations and that the models have not been manipulated in any way," the spokesperson said.
  • A Guardian report from 2019 suggested that TikTok had in the past censored content in a way that aligned with Beijing's foreign policy messaging. TikTok has said that it has since changed its content moderation guidelines.

Between the lines: Oracle will also conduct regular audits of TikTok's content moderation processes, including those involving automated systems and those employing people, a spokesperson said.

  • Last month, TikTok said it would give select researchers access to anonymized public data on the platform's algorithm and content moderation process later this year.
  • Giving Oracle access "will ensure that content continues to be flagged and actioned appropriately based on our Community Guidelines and no other factors," the spokesperson added.

Be smart: TikTok has in the past broadly revealed how its algorithm works, but lawmakers have more recently expressed concerns over how that algorithm is moderated and who gets access to the data used to fuel its recommendations.

  • A June BuzzFeed report found that U.S. user data had been repeatedly accessed in China, a revelation that spurred questions from lawmakers.
  • A TikTok spokesperson said the report showed "TikTok is doing exactly what it said it would: addressing concerns around access to U.S. user data by employees outside the U.S."

The big picture: The partnership between Oracle and TikTok was brokered in 2020 to stave off a plan by then-president Donald Trump to ban TikTok over national security concerns.

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