June 7, 2023

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Ex-ByteDance executive accuses TikTok’s parent company of ‘chaos’

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 described the company as a “useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.” .

The allegations were part of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed on Friday by Yintao Yu, who was chief engineering officer for ByteDance’s US operations from August 2017 to November 2018. The complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, says Mr. Concerns about a “global scheme” to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property.

Among the more striking allegations in Mr. Yu’s lawsuit is that ByteDance’s Beijing offices had a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members sometimes referred to as the Commission, which monitored the company’s apps, “guided how the company advanced core communist values” and possessed a “death key” that It may turn off Chinese apps completely.

β€œThe commission maintained superior access to all company data, even data stored in the United States,” the complaint reads.

Mr. Yu’s claims, which describe how ByteDance operated five years ago, emerge 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 more than 150 million Americans, has become wildly 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 CEO Xu Qiu about the app’s Chinese ownership. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said that TikTok “screams national security concerns.” More than two dozen states have banned TikTok from government agencies since November.

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In an emailed statement, ByteDance said on Friday that the company “will vigorously dispute what we believe to be the unsubstantiated allegations and allegations in this complaint.”

Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and ended his employment in July 2018. During his short time at the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for commercial reasons.

In his complaint, Mr. Yu, 36, said that while TikTok sought to attract users in its early days, ByteDance engineers copied videos and posts from Snapchat and Instagram without permission and then posted them on the app. He also alleged that ByteDance “systematically created fabricated users” β€” essentially an army of bots β€” to boost participation numbers, a practice Mr. Yu said he reported to his superiors.

Mr. Yu says he raised these concerns with Zhu Wenjia, who was in charge of TikTok’s algorithm, but Mr. Zhu was “dismissive” and suggested it was “no big deal”.

Mr. Yu, who spent part of his tenure at ByteDance working in its offices in China, said he also watched the engineers of Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tweak the algorithm to lift content expressing hatred of Japan. In an interview, he said that the promotion of anti-Japanese sentiment, which would make it more prominent for users, was done without hesitation.

“There was no discussion,” he said. “They just did it.”

The suit also accused ByteDance engineers working on Chinese apps of downgrading content that expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, with more prominent criticism of the protests.

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As an example of what has been described as the “chaos” within the company, the suit says ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, facilitated bribes to Lu Wei, a senior government official tasked with regulating the internet. Chinese media covered at the time 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 sought to convince lawmakers that it operates at arm’s length from ByteDance and that the Chinese government has no special influence or access to the app. It has been working on an expensive plan to store US user data on Oracle-run servers in the US, 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 tenure with the company, US user data on TikTok was stored in the United States. But he said engineers in China had access to it.

The geographical location of the servers is “irrelevant,” he said, because engineers could be on a remote continent but still have access. During his tenure at the company, he said, some engineers had “backdoor” access to user data.

His lawsuit seeks lost profits, punitive damages and 220,000 shares of ByteDance stock that had not been awarded at the time of his refusal. The complaint did not name a specific dollar amount in damages, but the shares alone would be worth tens of millions of dollars. The case was brought after several years of failed mediation with the company.

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