TikTok to give independent copy of core algorithm to US

Sources say TikTok is working on a clone of its recommendation algorithm that could result in a version of the short video app that operates independently for the 170 million TikTok users in the United States, according to an exclusive report by Reuters.

The move would separate TikTok from its Chinese parent company ByteDance in an effort to satisfy US lawmakers who want to ban it, according to sources with direct knowledge of the effort.

The ultimate goal is to create a new source code repository for a recommendation algorithm serving only TikTok US.

If completed, TikTok US will run and maintain its recommendation algorithm independently from other TikTok apps and its Chinese version, Douyin, essentially severing it from ByteDance's extensive engineering support in Beijing.

However, if TikTok manages to split the recommendation engine, there's a risk that TikTok US might not perform as well as the existing TikTok since it heavily relies on ByteDance’s engineers in China for updates and maintenance to maximize user engagement.

TikTok divest ban protest Washington DC
Image by Craig Hudson | Reuters

Late last year, ByteDance ordered the work on splitting the source code, which actually started before the ‘divest or ban’ bill was signed into law in April.

President Biden and other supporters of the law argue that TikTok gives Beijing too much access to data that could be used to spy on or influence US users, creating a risk to national security.

The bill gives its parent company until January 19th to divest from TikTok's US operations or face a ban in the states.

According to the sources, who remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak publicly, once the code is split, it could pave the way for divestiture, although TikTok has previously stated that selling its US assets would be impossible.

Reuters previously reported that selling the app with its algorithms is highly unlikely. TikTok and ByteDance filed a lawsuit in US federal court in May, aiming to block the law.

On Tuesday, a US appeals court set a fast-track schedule to consider the legal challenges to the new law.

All about the source code

Over the past few months, hundreds of ByteDance and TikTok engineers in both the US and China have been tasked with the tedious job of separating millions of lines of code.

Sources described the task of splitting the code as tedious “dirty work,” underscoring the difficulty of untangling TikTok’s US operations from its Chinese parent.

Their goal is to create a separate code base, independent of ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, and to eliminate any links to Chinese users, the sources told Reuters.

This plan offers a rare glimpse into what a technical separation of TikTok's US operations might entail, showing how far TikTok is willing to go to address the bipartisan political pressure it faces.

TikTok ByteDance 750

According to legal filings, TikTok’s recommendation engine source code, originally developed by ByteDance engineers in China, is customized for operations in various global markets, including the US.

ByteDance credits TikTok’s popularity to this engine, which tailors each user’s content feed based on their interactions.

The Chinese government added content recommendation algorithms to its export-control list in 2020, meaning any divestiture or sale of TikTok's algorithm would require administrative licensing procedures.

Compliance and legal issues further complicate the task, as each line of code must be reviewed to determine if it can be included in the separate code base.

An earlier effort, Project Texas, aimed to silo off US user data failed to appease US regulators and lawmakers.

At one point, TikTok executives even considered open-sourcing some of the algorithm to demonstrate transparency, the sources said.

Despite the ongoing legal battle, engineers are still working under orders to separate the US recommendation engine from ByteDance’s broader network.

The entire project is expected to take over a year.