TikTok officials go on a public charm offensive amid a stalemate in Biden White The hit video app is facing an existential crisis, and it is hoping promoting its reorganization will help convince Americans that it is independent from its Chinese owner.

TikTok officials go on a public charm offensive amid a stalemate in Biden White House

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TikTok, a Chinese company, recently did something it's never done before. It invited journalists to tour its American headquarters in Los Angeles. The famously secretive company is making a new public relations push because it faces a growing threat that it won't be able to keep doing business in the U.S. NPR's Bobby Allyn was on that TikTok tour. Hi, Bobby.


SHAPIRO: What was the office like?

ALLYN: Well, I was hoping we'd be led to a secret chamber door that would open and reveal the TikTok algorithm behind a red curtain.

SHAPIRO: Me, too.

ALLYN: Not so much (laughter). No, it was a corporate office with neon-lit TikTok logos and brightly colored furniture - not that exciting. We heard presentations from TikTok executives. We toured what they're calling the Accountability and Transparency Center, where we played a game. You viewed a video and decided whether it violated TikTok's rules. Obviously, it was kind of fun and sort of tricky. You know, rule violations are not always black and white, and that really hammered that point home. Anyway, we weren't allowed to record, but we were given lots of face time with executives. And they kept hammering one message. Americans' data is safe on TikTok.

SHAPIRO: But there have been lots of national security concerns despite that message because of TikTok's Chinese parent company. So why did this tour happen now?

ALLYN: Because TikTok is really worried it might not have a future in the U.S., and that's because there has been a huge fight within the White House over TikTok. On one side are China hawks who say TikTok needs to fully separate from its Chinese parent company, right? On the other side are those satisfied with the TikTok's new firewall between the U.S. company and China. Of course, the fear is that the Chinese government could get its hands on Americans' data. But the fight has gotten so heated that a deal over TikTok that was supposed to be finished by now is in limbo. Here's Adam Segal. He's an expert on Chinese tech policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ADAM SEGAL: There is just a large group of national security hawks who believe that any connection to a Chinese company means that U.S. data security is at risk because of laws inside of China that appear to give the Chinese government access to that data if it asks for it.

SHAPIRO: So, Bobby, what do TikTok executives say about those concerns?

ALLYN: They revealed something called Project Texas, and the name comes from the fact that Austin-based software company Oracle is their main partner in this plan. And what they're doing is deleting all of Americans' data off of TikTok servers and moving it to Oracle servers. They're starting a subsidiary of TikTok and hiring 2,500 people to staff it. And those people will be monitoring the flow of data from Americans' phones to Oracle's cloud servers and, they say, ensuring that no data ever goes back to China. TikTok says Beijing engineers won't even see Americans' data. Segal with the Council on Foreign Relations says he was actually pretty impressed with this plan.

SEGAL: It would address a lot of the U.S. security concerns to be able to have inspections of the algorithm and have some sense of where the data is being stored. I think there's still going to be some uncertainty about who has access to it in the backend.

ALLYN: Yeah, and that uncertainty is because during the transition to Oracle servers in Texas, TikTok says they'll be using some of its own servers as a backup. And some wonder, is that going to be a weakness?

SHAPIRO: Why wouldn't TikTok just take what seems like a simpler step of separating from its parent company, ByteDance?

ALLYN: Well, many officials in the White House are asking the same exact question, Ari, but there are a number of reasons. First, TikTok is the pride and joy of China. It's the country's first global social media hit. So they're not willing to just sell it off to an American company. But there are a host of other reasons, too - legal issues, right? Segal told me that selling TikTok's algorithm might actually violate Chinese export control laws. That could be a headache, not to mention the other legal challenges that would be triggered in the U.S. So TikTok is trying to meet the Biden administration halfway. But, you know, in the White House, it is still being hotly debated.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari.


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