TikTok Calls for All Social Platforms to Unveil Their Algorithms to Regulators

The company’s letter to House members sought to clear up misconceptions, mainly regarding China

TikTok insisted that it never provided any U.S. user data to the Chinese government Wachiwit/iStock
Headshot of David Cohen

TikTok is not a participant in the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee hearing taking place Wednesday afternoon, but it might as well have set up a virtual table in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Vice president and head of U.S. public policy Michael Beckerman sent a letter (embedded below) Wednesday morning to Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) looking to clear up misconceptions about TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, which the company claims is headquartered in the Cayman Islands, and not China.

TikTok is not a focus of Wednesday’s hearing, but the video-creation platform has caught the eye of President Donald Trump and his administration, which are exploring potential measures against the company in the name of protecting the data of U.S. citizens from being obtained by the Chinese government.

Beckerman pointed out in his letter that TikTok is not available in China, and that most of its investors are global institutional venture funds including Coatue Management, Fidelity Investments, General Atlantic, Goldman Sachs, KKR, New Enterprise Associates, Sequoia Capital and SoftBank.

He also mentioned the company’s offices in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas, Washington and Washington, D.C., emphasizing that TikTok CEO and ByteDance chief operating officer Kevin Mayer is based in Los Angeles.

And Beckerman said TikTok has been “actively engaging with Congress and other key stakeholders” to explain its commitment to safety and security and address questions and concerns.

He wrote, “Despite these efforts, rumors and misinformation about TikTok proliferate throughout Washington and in the media. We would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight. TikTok is not available in China. We store Americans’ user data in the U.S., with backup in Singapore, with strict access controls for employees. We have never provided any U.S. user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked. Any allegations to the contrary are unfounded.”

Beckerman shared comments from four security experts: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation vp Daniel Castro; Bloomberg technology columnist Tae Kim; Center for Strategic and International Studies cybersecurity expert Jim Lewis; and cybersecurity expert and author of Cybersecurity for Dummies Joseph Steinberg.

He concluded his letter with: “The TikTok team is working to do our part to provide an outlet for creativity and fun entertainment, while protecting user safety and privacy. We are confident that TikTok will continue to give creators, users and brands an entertaining outlet for many years to come, and we will take the necessary steps to make this happen. But ultimately, this is not just about the success of TikTok. It is about a competitive marketplace that provides people with choices on how to spend their time online. Without TikTok, all that users would be left with is copycats offered by the same players who already dominate the online landscape. Gone with the competition would also be the creative energy, fun, and innovation that people love and people find on TikTok.”

Mayer picked up on that theme in a blog post Wednesday morning, also shared in Beckerman’s letter.

He wrote, “Innovation is one of the defining characteristics of a competitive market. The introduction of a successful new product fuels growth and dynamism in any industry. It is unfortunate for creators, brands and the broader community that it has been years since a company came along and reimagined what a social entertainment platform could be. But TikTok did just that. TikTok brought a unique and intuitive interface. It gave creators easy, powerful tools. It also encouraged the formation of inclusive and meaningful communities. In short, TikTok brought successful competition to the marketplace. This is why I joined the company as CEO earlier this year: to help lead the next generation of creators to connect with their newly energized audience, while bringing fun entertainment to people’s lives.”

But Mayer took things one step further, calling for all companies in the social media sector to unveil their algorithms, moderation policies and data flows to regulators.

He pointed to the Transparency Center the company opened in its Los Angeles office in May, saying that experts can observe TikTok’s moderation policies in real-time and examine the code that drives its algorithms.

Mayer also took a shot at Facebook, writing, “At TikTok, we welcome competition. We think fair competition makes all of us better. To those who wish to launch competitive products, we say bring it on. Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after its other copycat, Lasso, failed quickly. But let’s focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor—namely Facebook—disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the U.S.”

The “maligning attacks” he referred to came in the form of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s prepared remarks for Wednesday’s hearing, in which he said, “Although people around the world use our products, Facebook is a proudly American company. We believe in values—democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression—that the American economy was built on. Many other tech companies share these values, but there’s no guarantee that our values will win out. For example, China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries. As Congress and other stakeholders consider how antitrust laws support competition in the U.S., I believe it’s important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America’s digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world.”

Mayer also mentioned the fact that TikTok does not accept political advertising, another shot at Facebook, and he concluded his blog post: “TikTok has become the latest target, but we are not the enemy. The bigger move is to use this moment to drive deeper conversations around algorithms, transparency and content moderation, and to develop stricter rules of the road. We are taking the first step of many to address these concerns, and we call on the industry to follow our lead for the benefit of users and creators everywhere.”


david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.