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May 31, 2024, 1:27pm EDT
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Semafor Signals

TikTok’s reported cloning of algorithm for US raises questions on divestiture plans

Insights from Reuters, NPR, Al Jazeera, and Business Insider

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Dado Ruvic/Reuters
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TikTok appears to be working on a clone of its coveted algorithm to cater only to US audiences, and operate independently of systems used by the app’s Chinese parent company, Bytedance, Reuters reported.

The report comes a month after a US law was passed forcing TikTok to be sold to an American company by early 2025 to avoid a national ban; Bytedance has sued the US over the law.

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TikTok denied Reuters’ report, and reiterated that the divestiture is “simply not possible: not commercially, not technologically, not legally.”

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TikTok could sell without its ‘secret sauce’

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Sources:  
Reuters, Business Insider

Splitting the algorithm could lay the groundwork for a divestiture, Reuters wrote, but TikTok has asserted it would oppose any plans to sell its US assets, especially ones involving its prized recommendation algorithm. The idea of TikTok “without the secret sauce” behind its For You pages might seem disastrous for a new US owner, but it may not matter as much as we think, argued Business Insider’s Katie Notopoulos. One of TikTok’s most valuable assets is its user base, she wrote, and its unique culture makes it challenging for other short-form video apps like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts to recreate.

US activists worry about losing TikTok as an organizing tool in an election year

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Source:  
Al Jazeera

TikTok’s powerful recommendation algorithm has long been criticized for “manipulating public discourse,” Al Jazeera wrote, by allegedly suppressing or promoting certain political views on topics including the Israel-Hamas war and China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. But activists worry that the app’s potential ban in the US will deprive them of a critical organizing tool for political and social protests on the eve of a consequential election this year. “Rather than trying to impose universal data privacy legislation to protect Americans from the very real data privacy crisis that we have in this country, Congress has chosen to ban an app that has been one of the most powerful platforms for youth organizing,” one Gen Z activist told Al Jazeera.

Both TikTok and the US government have a trump card in their legal battle

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Sources:  
Business Insider, NPR

It’s unclear how courts will rule on Bytedance’s lawsuit against the US government. Previous legal attempts to ban the app have failed over possible First Amendment violations, and legal experts told NPR that even though the government will focus its argument on national security risks and not free speech, it will be “difficult to avoid the constitutional implications.” However, the courts could defer to Congress as an authority on national security, one legal expert told Business Insider. TikTok’s trump card is the First Amendment, while the government’s is national security; the case, one law professor said, will come down to “which trump card does the court think is more valuable?

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