A former executive of bytedancethe Chinese company that owns Tik Tokaccused the tech giant of a “culture of lawlessness,” including stealing content from rival platforms Snapchat and Instagram in its early years, calling the company a “useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.”
The claims were part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed Friday by Yintao Yu, who was the head of engineering for ByteDance’s US operations from August 2017 to November 2018. The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, says Mr. Yu was fired because he raised concerns about a “global scheme” to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property.
One of the most striking claims in Mr. Yu’s lawsuit is that ByteDance’s Beijing offices had a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members, sometimes referred to as a Committee, which oversaw the company’s applications, “guided how the company promoted core communist values” and had a “kill switch” that could turn off Chinese apps entirely.
“The Committee maintained supreme access to all company data, including data stored in the United States,” the complaint states.
Mr. Yu’s claims, describing how ByteDance operated five years ago, are emerging as TikTok faces intense national scrutiny about its relationship with its parent company and the possible influence of China on the platform. The video app, which is used by more than 150 million Americans, has become hugely popular for its 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 Grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew on 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 TikTok Banned of government devices since November.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his complaint, Mr. Yu, 36, said that while TikTok was seeking 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 claimed that ByteDance “systematically created manufactured users,” essentially an army of bots, to increase the number of interactions, a practice Mr. Yu said he pointed out 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 commented that it was “no big deal”.
Mr Yu, who spent part of his tenure at ByteDance working out of its China offices, said he also witnessed engineers at Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, tweaking the algorithm to elevate content expressing hate for Japan. . In an interview, he said that the promotion of anti-Japanese sentiments, which would make them more prominent to 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 demoting content expressing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while also making more outspoken criticisms of the protests.
In an example of what was described as “lawlessness” within the company, the lawsuit says ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming facilitated bribes to Lu Weia senior government official tasked with regulating the Internet. Chinese media at the time covered the trial of Lu Wei, who was indicted in 2018 and later convicted of bribery, but did not mention who had paid the bribes.
TikTok has tried to convince lawmakers that it operates remotely from ByteDance and that the Chinese government has no influence or special access to the app. He has been working on an expensive plan to store American user data on servers operated by Oracle in the United States, known as Project Texas.
Mr. Yu, who was born and raised in China and now lives in San Francisco, said in the interview that during his time with the company, American user data on TikTok was stored in the United States. But engineers in China had access to it, he said.
The geographic location of the servers is “irrelevant,” he said, because engineers could be a continent away but still have access. During his tenure at the company, he said, certain engineers had “back door” access to user data.
His lawsuit seeks lost profits, punitive damages and 220,000 ByteDance shares that had not vested when he was fired. The lawsuit does not name a specific dollar amount in damages, but the actions alone would be worth tens of millions of dollars. The case was closed after several years of unsuccessful mediation with the company.