TikTok said to be working on US-specific version of its content algorithm for months

Owner ByteDance may be hedging its bets on overturning sale-or-ban bill

Developers for the short video app TikTok have reportedly been working on creating a clone of its content algorithm specifically for use in the US since late last year.

The cloned algorithm would be completely separate from the Chinese version of TikTok, running on different servers and not interfacing with data from Chinese users, Reuters reported yesterday. If TikTok were to implement this American version of its algorithm, it would segregate TikTok's China operations from its branch in the US, potentially at the cost of efficacy since the US variant would be on its own and unable to access engineering resources in China.

The work required to make this clone is said to be tedious and time consuming, and is expected to take more than a year. Considering TikTok began working on this late last year, the cloned algorithm would presumably be ready later this year or early in 2025. The deadline for TikTok to divest itself to a US buyer is January 19, which means the job might just barely be done in time to avoid exile.

According to the report's anonymous sources, the cloned algorithm is in preparation for a sale of TikTok in the US, something that parent company ByteDance has vehemently ruled out ever since the TikTok sale-or-ban bill was signed late last April.

TikTok has already made a statement on the report, saying Reuters has it wrong. "As we said in our court filing, the 'qualified divestiture' demanded by the Act to allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States is simply not possible: not commercially, not technologically, not legally," it said on X. "And certainly not on the 270-day timeline required by the Act."

Assuming the report is correct and TikTok is cloning its content algorithm to make a US-specific variant, it could be a sign that the platform is hedging its bets in the event that it fails to overturn the law that forces it to sell or quit the country. After all, getting banned from one of the largest economies in the world would be pretty bad for business despite TikTok's rhetoric that it doesn't need American users.

At the same time, if TikTok wants to kill the bill that would see it sold or banned, taking a maximalist position as it currently does is probably the social media company's best bet.

Additionally, a separate algorithm for the US may help to convince the feds that a forced sale or ban isn't necessary, though given that the bill has already been passed, it might be too late for TikTok to negotiate and compromise. ®

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