Bulletins

TikTok’s research concession is about the EU, even if it addresses US concerns

As lawmakers scrutinize TikTok over its ties to China, the company decided to open some anonymized user data to researchers.

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TikTok’s transparency push comes amid mounting scrutiny of its content moderation practices and ties to China.

Image: Juan Pablo Bravo/Protocol

TikTok announced on Wednesday that it’s working on new transparency tools for researchers. By the end of the year, TikTok says “selected researchers” will have access to APIs that allow them to conduct tests and study trends using anonymized data sets. Though the move will help address mounting concerns in the U.S. over TikTok’s data security, it likely comes in response to the EU's forthcoming Digital Services Act, which contains mandates for research access.


In the blog post, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas acknowledged that researchers currently “do not have easy and accurate ways to identify and assess content and trends or conduct tests of our platform.”

TikTok lags behind competitors in that regard: Both Meta and Twitter offer data sets for researchers. Meta, for instance, launched its Ad Library tool in 2019, responding to allegations of platform misuse surrounding elections. Twitter has likewise shared over 40 data sets that focus on global “platform manipulation campaigns.”

TikTok’s transparency push comes amid mounting scrutiny of its content moderation practices and ties to China. A TikTok spokesperson told Protocol that the company has been working on these changes “for some time as part of our ongoing commitment to transparency and accountability.”

In June, BuzzFeed obtained leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings that suggested ByteDance employees in China could access American user data, despite numerous assurances that data remained siloed between the two nations. It also found that TikTok had been actively working on rerouting data pipelines to address the problem.

The report renewed scrutiny of TikTok by U.S. politicians. In early July, Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio urged Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan to launch an immediate investigation into TikTok’s data processing and corporate governance practices, citing the BuzzFeed article.

Previous attempts at investigating TikTok didn’t get far. In 2019, Sens. Tom Cotton and Chuck Schumer urged U.S. intelligence agencies to study national security risks posed by TikTok due to the potential for a “foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election.” Former President Donald Trump attempted to force ByteDance to sell the U.S. operations of TikTok to an American company, but that order wasn’t carried out under the Biden administration.

The impetus for TikTok’s new research tools isn’t U.S. pressure, but new EU regulation, according to Gus Rossi, director of platform policy at Omidyar Network.

Article 31 of the forthcoming Digital Services Act requires social media companies to give data to vetted academic researchers for assessing “systemic risks.” Those risks can pertain to illegal activity on the platform or any broader manipulation campaigns.

“It’s hard to imagine that this would be happening if it weren’t because the European Union imposed their mandate,” Rossi told Protocol.

These circumstances raise questions as to just how accessible TikTok’s APIs will be, especially for U.S.-based academics. TikTok only commits to opening access for “selected researchers.” It doesn’t say how those researchers will be selected, nor the scope of data they’ll be able to request.

Update: This story was updated July 27 to include TikTok's statement.

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