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TikTok pledges more transparency for researchers amid renewed scrutiny

By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN Business

TikTok on Wednesday said it would share more data with certain researchers to study activity on the platform amid renewed scrutiny of the short-form video app’s impact on society and its ties to Beijing.

Later this year, the company will provide “selected researchers” with access to its API, or application programming interface, TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas said in a blog post Wednesday. The move is intended to “improve ease of access to public and anonymized data about content and activity on our platform,” Pappas said.

The company is also developing a tool to give researchers an “effective way to evaluate our content moderation systems and examine existing content available on our platform,” Pappas added. Researchers will also soon be able to upload their own posts to see how different types of content are either permitted, rejected or passed to moderators for further evaluation.

Beyond that, TikTok pledged to expand its transparency reports with information about “countering covert influence operations,” according to Pappas. This information will be included in the company’s quarterly Community Guidelines Enforcement Reports.

“We know that just saying ‘trust us’ is not enough,” Pappas said. “That’s why long ago we made an important commitment to transparency, particularly when it comes to how we moderate and recommend content.”

Other social media companies have also recently pledged to bolster transparency for researchers. Facebook-parent Meta said in May that it would share more details with researchers about how political and social ads are targeted to users on the platform.

The latest announcement from TikTok comes amid renewed scrutiny of the platform and its parent company, China-based ByteDance. On Tuesday, Buzzfeed News reported that former TikTok employees claimed the company placed pieces of pro-China content on its now-defunct US news app. ByteDance denied the allegations.

Last month, Buzzfeed News also reported that some US user data has been repeatedly accessed from China. TikTok previously told CNN it has “consistently maintained that our engineers in locations outside of the US, including China, can be granted access to US user data on an as-needed basis.” A TikTok executive testified in a Senate hearing last year that it doesn’t share information with the Chinese government.

The news reports have caught the attention of regulators and lawmakers. Last month, a member of the Federal Communications Commission doubled down on calls for Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, citing national security concerns and referencing Buzzfeed’s reporting. The FCC, however, plays no role in regulating app stores.

Earlier this month, lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee also called for a Federal Trade Commission probe of TikTok, similarly citing recent reports that TikTok’s Chinese parent company had accessed US users’ data.

TikTok recently announced it now processes all US user data on US-based cloud servers hosted by Oracle.

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