November 28, 2023

A former executive at ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has accused the tech giant of having a “culture of lawlessness,” including early content theft from rival platforms Snapchat and Instagram, and called the company a “useful propaganda tool” in China communist party. “

The claims are part of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed Friday by Yintao Yu, who served as engineering director for ByteDance’s U.S. business from August 2017 to November 2018. The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, said Mr. Yu was fired because he raised concerns about a “global scheme” to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property.

The most notable claim in Mr. Yu’s lawsuit is that ByteDance’s offices in Beijing have a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members, sometimes called a committee, that oversees the company’s app and “guides the company on how to advance the Communist Party.” core values ​​of communism” and has a “kill switch” that can completely shut down Chinese apps.

“The Commission maintains supreme access to all corporate data, even data stored in the United States,” the complaint states.

As TikTok faces intense national scrutiny over its ties to its parent company and potential Chinese influence on the platform, claims by Yu describing how ByteDance operated five years ago are emerging. The video app used by more than 150 million Americans has become popular for memes and entertainment. But lawmakers and U.S. officials worry the app could pass sensitive information about Americans to Beijing.

In March, a congressional committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zhou over the app’s Chinese ownership. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said TikTok was “speaking up out of national security concerns.” Since November, more than 20 states have banned TikTok from government devices.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yu, 36, said in his complaint that as TikTok tried to attract users in its early days, ByteDance engineers copied videos and posts from Snapchat and Instagram without permission and posted them on the app. He also claimed that ByteDance had “systematically created fake users” — essentially a swarm of bots — to boost engagement, a practice Yu said he reported to his superiors.

Mr Yu said he raised these concerns with Zhu Wenjia, who is in charge of TikTok’s algorithm, but Mr Zhu “dismissed them” and said they were “no big deal”.

Yu, who worked in ByteDance’s China office for a while during his tenure at ByteDance, said he also witnessed engineers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tweak the algorithm to boost content expressing hatred of Japan. He said in an interview that promoting anti-Japanese sentiment would make users more prominent, without hesitation.

“There’s no debate,” he said. “They just did it.”

The lawsuit also accuses ByteDance’s engineers developing the Chinese app of downgrading content expressing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests while making more prominent criticism of the protests.

As an example of what has been described as “lawlessness” within the company, the lawsuit alleges that ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming helped bribe Lu Wei, a senior government official in charge of internet regulation. Chinese media at the time reported the trial of Lu Wei, who was charged and subsequently convicted of bribery in 2018, without mentioning who paid the bribes.

TikTok is trying to convince lawmakers that it is keeping ByteDance at arm’s length and that the Chinese government has no influence or special access to the app. It has been working on a costly plan to store U.S. user data on servers operated by Oracle in the U.S., known as Project Texas.

Yu, who was born and raised in China and now lives in San Francisco, said in an interview that during his tenure at the company, the data of American users on TikTok was stored in the United States. But engineers in China can access it, he said.

The geographic location of the server “doesn’t matter,” he said, because engineers could be a continent away and still have access. During his tenure at the company, certain engineers had access to user data through a “back door,” he said.

His lawsuit seeks lost earnings, punitive damages and 220,000 ByteDance shares that had not vested at the time of his dismissal. The complaint does not mention a specific damages amount, but the shares alone are worth tens of millions of dollars. The case was brought after years of unsuccessful mediation with the company.

Mr. Yu is represented by San Francisco attorney Charles Jung, who specializes in employment disputes.

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