ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, ramped up lobbying spending as the video-sharing app is under increased scrutiny for Chinese government ties and data security issues.
The Chinese-owned social media company poured more than $13.4 million into lobbying since it first reported payments to federal lobbyists in 2019, a new OpenSecrets analysis of disclosures found. That includes $5.3 million spent on federal lobbying in 2022 — a new record for the company. In 2022, ByteDance was the fourth-largest Internet company in federal lobbying, surpassed only by Amazon.com and the parent companies of Google and Facebook.
Despite the company’s heavy lobbying efforts and TikTok’s massive American following, the video-sharing app has continued to face scrutiny from lawmakers attempting to crack down on the Chinese-owned app.
Congress recently passed legislation to ban TikTok from federal government-owned devices as part of the annual appropriations bill. Efforts to ban the app entirely have gained momentum.
While Republicans initially led the charge to address the issues surrounding TikTok, Democrats have increasingly expressed concerns about the platform’s relationship with the Chinese government.
On Sunday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told CBS that there is a “strong bipartisan view” that action needs to be taken, noting that TikTok is collaborating with U.S. intelligence officials to enact safeguards. Days earlier, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) sent a letter to the CEOs of Apple and Google calling on the tech companies to remove TikTok from their app stores.
A new House select committee on China’s influence chaired by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) is also zeroing in on TikTok, the Washington Post reported on Jan. 30. In December, Gallagher — along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) — introduced legislation to ban TikTok from operating in the U.S.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) introduced another bill on Jan. 25 to ban TikTok from being downloaded on any U.S. devices, blocking and prohibiting any transactions with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.
Since late November, “nearly two dozen state governors and officials” have enacted state-level bans of TikTok on government devices as well, the Washington Post reported.
The growing push to ban TikTok in the U.S. has put pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration as it reviews security concerns around the video-sharing app due to suspicions that it could be used as a tool of foreign influence. Biden ordered the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review TikTok in June 2021, after withdrawing former President Donald Trump’s executive orders banning new downloads of the app in the U.S.
In June 2022, BuzzFeed News reported that ByteDance employees based in China have repeatedly accessed private data about American TikTok users, prompting Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rubio to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company. On Dec. 2, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that TikTok is controlled by a Chinese government that could “use it for influence operations.”
Warner, who serves as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is reportedly planning to introduce a bill to broaden restrictions on foreign-owned technology companies that pose national security concerns and establish a more thorough process for reviewing concerns about such companies.
‘Revolving door’ lobbyists boost ByteDance
After launching lobbying operations in the second half of 2019, ByteDance quickly assembled an impressive slate of lobbyists from both sides of the aisle, enlisting multiple former government officials to advocate for its interests.
The company now has at least 40 lobbyists, including dozens of “revolving door” lobbyists who previously held government positions. Four of ByteDance’s revolving door lobbyists are former members of Congress and another 31 are former congressional staffers.
Lobbyists for ByteDance include former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Breaux Sr. (R-La.), who now work for the Washington lobbying firm Crossroads Strategies. Former Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) of K&L Gates, a multinational firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, are also registered to lobby on behalf of ByteDance.
Other TikTok public policy staffers with experience on Capitol Hill include Michael Bloom, who was previously a senior adviser to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Freddy Barnes, a former adviser to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
TikTok has also assembled an in-house lobbying team with ties to and experience working for prominent members of Congress.
Jesse Price, TikTok’s global public policy director, previously worked for former Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.). Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s vice president of public policy for the Americas, is a former aide to Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Mike Conaway (R-Texas).
Michael Hacker, another TikTok in-house lobbyist, previously served as senior adviser to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). While employed as a TikTok lobbyist during the 2022 cycle, Hacker contributed $20,800 to Clyburn’s campaign and leadership PAC. Clyburn also received a $500 contribution from TikTok lobbyist Kim Lipsky, who was previously the staff director of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
ByteDance has lobbied on a number of bills, including the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which was intended to help the U.S. compete with China, and the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, which would limit the way that websites like TikTok can collect personal information of users who are minors.
The company also lobbied on digital privacy legislation, defense appropriations and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, an antitrust bill intended to boost competitiveness with China.
A broader push against China’s influence
TikTok has become emblematic in th larger push to counter the political and economic influence of China in the U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has claimed that the app is “a Chinese Communist Party surveillance tool” and also tweeted that its lobbyists should be required to register as foreign agents.
TikTok has faced criticism from lawmakers that it has shared American users’ data with the Chinese Communist Party. In the aftermath of a June 2022 investigation published by BuzzFeed News, the company acknowledged that some of its China-based employees had access to American users’ data, but only with the approval of a U.S.-based corporate security team.
At Senate committee hearings in 2021 and 2022, TikTok executives were grilled by senators who repeatedly alleged that the Chinese government has influence over the company and access to American users’ private information.
During a September 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas claimed that ByteDance is not based in China and does not have an official headquarters in China or any other country. While TikTok has offices in Singapore and Los Angeles, Insider reported that staff in ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters maintain significant control over the app.
On Jan. 30, the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will appear before the committee to testify on a range of issues, including the company’s relationship with the Chinese government.
Other federal agencies also have TikTok in their crosshairs.
In 2022, Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, called on Apple and Google to remove the TikTok app from their stores due to data security concerns. Carr has also expressed support for congressional proposals for a broader ban on TikTok.
Warner co-authored a 2022 letter to the Federal Trade Commission with Rubio asking the agency to formally investigate TikTok and ByteDance. Warner and Rubio are currently chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, respectively.
As government officials debate what safety protocols TikTok should have in place and whether to make TikTok sever its relationship with its Chinese parent company ByteDance — or whether to ban the app entirely — the company has started to roll out some changes to address concerns.
At a media briefing on Tuesday, top TikTok officials described a new data security plan that entails deleting all Americans’ data from its servers abroad and instead routing user traffic through servers managed by Oracle, a software company based in Texas.
During the briefing, TikTok officials announced that the company is also forming a subsidiary called TikTok U.S. Data Security, or USDS, that will control access to Americans’ data on the app and report to an independent board of directors.