Amid various ongoing controversies, and continued concerns around its internal practices, TikTok has announced plans to open a new Transparency and Accountability Center in Europe, based in Ireland, expanding on a similar initiative already established in the US.
As explained by TikTok:
"The Center will provide experts with an opportunity to visit and see first-hand how teams at TikTok go about the critically important work of securing our community's safety, data, and privacy. Through this direct observation of our practices, experts will have an opportunity to learn about our moderation systems, processes, and policies."
The new Center will aim to address specific concerns raised by EU regulators, some of whom have been pushing for a complete ban of the app.
As noted, TikTok already has a Transparency and Accountability Center in LA, though its value thus far has been limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. The eventual plan is that the Center will be open for anyone to come in and see how TikTok works, to alleviate concerns around its processes, while TikTok's also planning to open a similar facility in Washington DC to showcase the same to policymakers, in an effort to avoid further regulation or restriction.
TikTok did show a group of reporters around the LA office last September (via Zoom), providing a more in-depth look at its internal practices, and the response was largely positive, adding a level of transparency lacking in the broader social media 'black box' type approach.
And TikTok, of course, has faced more significant challenges than most on this front.
Amid ongoing concerns about its data gathering practices, and questionable moderation processes, last year, the US Government sought to expel TikTok from the US, or force the app to be sold into US ownership, to avoid potential connection with the Chinese Government.
That effort repeatedly fell apart under legal scrutiny, but given the app's Chinese ownership, and China's strict rules around accessing user data, on request, concerns remain as to how TikTok actually operates, and what kinds of data it may be sending back to its home base.
For its part, TikTok has underlined that it does not share international user data with the CCP, nor would it, while TikTok has also responded to criticisms around its early moderation guidelines, which included some questionable processes of exclusion and restriction in the app.
The company has gone to great effort to address these concerns, which has culminated in the establishment of its Transparency and Accountability Center. And in Europe specifically, the site of this new planned facility, TikTok has also faced potential restriction on a range of fronts.
In 2019, for example, the UK Information Commissioner launched an investigation into how TikTok handles the personal data of its young users, and whether it prioritizes the safety of children on its network. In the same year, French officials also announced an investigation into TikTok's data-gathering practices, primarily due to concerns around its measures to protect younger users.
The app was even totally blocked in Italy for a period last year, following claims that a 10 year-old girl had died after taking part in a “blackout challenge” in the app. The challenge saw users choking themselves in their clips. The European Commission is also investigating claims that TikTok exposes young users to inappropriate content.
Given the various concerns, it makes sense for TikTok to establish a Europe-specific trust center - but will that alleviate all concerns, and reduce regulatory pressure on the app?
Realistically, probably not. TikTok's potential, or perceived linkage to the secretive Chinese regime will likely always remain a sticking point, and it is difficult to argue that the app doesn't expose young people to less savory web elements.
But TikTok is looking to be more transparent in its efforts, with the new Center designed to showcase how it uses technology to keep users safe, how its content review teams make decisions about what's shown, and what's removed, and how it catches potential violations of its policies
"The landscape we operate in is rapidly evolving and it's our hope that visitors will be able to learn more about our work, but importantly, also provide candid feedback about what they see and hear. No system, policy, or practice is flawless, and we are committed to constant improvement."
It's a good initiative, but the concern is that it will be seen as more of a PR exercise than a valuable overview. The Ireland location may also not be ideal - but TikTok is working to be as open as possible as it continues to expand around the world.