A former executive at ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, accused the tech giant of a “culture of lawlessness”, including stealing content from rival platforms Snapchat and Instagram in its early years, and called the company “a useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.”
The claims were part of an unfair dismissal lawsuit filed Friday by Yintao Yu, who was head of engineering for ByteDance’s US operations from August 2017 to November 2018. The complaint, filed in the Superior Court of San Francisco says Yu was fired because he raised concerns about a “worldwide scheme” to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property.
Among the most salient allegations in Yu’s lawsuit is that ByteDance’s Beijing offices had a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members sometimes called the Committee, which monitored the company’s applications, “guided how the company promoted the values fundamental communists” and had a “death switch” that could shut down Chinese apps completely.
“The Committee maintained supreme access to all company data, even data stored in the United States,” the complaint said.
Yu’s allegations, which describe how ByteDance operated five years ago, come as TikTok faces intense national scrutiny over its relationship with its parent company and China’s potential influence on the platform. The video app, used by over 150 million Americans, has become extremely popular for memes and entertainment. But US lawmakers and officials are concerned that the app is passing sensitive information about Americans to Beijing.
In March, a congressional committee questioned TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, about Chinese ownership of the app. Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently said that TikTok “screams with national security concerns”. More than two dozen states have banned TikTok from government devices since November.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his complaint, Yu, 36, said that while TikTok sought to attract users in its early days, engineers at ByteDance copied videos and posts from Snapchat and Instagram without permission and then posted them to the app. He also claimed that ByteDance “systematically created fabricated users” — essentially an army of bots — to boost engagement numbers, a practice Yu said he flagged up to his superiors.
Yu says he raised these concerns with Zhu Wenjia, who was in charge of TikTok’s algorithm, but that Zhu was “dismissed” and remarked that it was “no big deal”.
Yu, who spent part of his tenure at ByteDance working from its China offices, said he also witnessed engineers at Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tweak the algorithm to elevate content that expressed hatred of Japan. In an interview, he said that promoting anti-Japanese sentiments, which would make him more prominent for users, was done without hesitation.
“There was no debate,” he said. “They just did it.”
The lawsuit also accused ByteDance engineers working on Chinese apps of downgrading content expressing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while making more prominent criticisms of the protests.
As an example of what was described as “illegality” within the company, the lawsuit says ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming facilitated bribes to Lu Wei, a senior government official in charge of internet regulation. Chinese media at the time covered the trial of Lu Wei, who was charged in 2018 and later convicted of bribery, but there was no mention of who paid the bribes.
TikTok has tried to convince lawmakers that it operates at a distance from ByteDance and that the Chinese government has no influence or special access to the app. It has been working on an expensive plan to store US users’ data on servers operated by Oracle in the United States, known as Project Texas.
Yu, who was born and raised in China and now lives in San Francisco, said in the interview that during his time at the company, US user data on TikTok was stored in the United States. But the engineers in China had access to it, he said.
The geographic location of the servers is “irrelevant”, he said, because engineers can be a continent away but still have access. During his tenure at the company, he said, some engineers had “backdoor” access to user data.
His lawsuit seeks lost earnings, punitive damages and 220,000 shares of ByteDance that had not been vested at the time he was fired. The claim does not cite a specific dollar amount in damages, but the lawsuits alone would be worth tens of millions of dollars. The case was dismissed after several years of mediation with the failed company.