Ex-ByteDance employee claims the company stole content from competitors in the past
New York (CNN) An ex-ByteDance employee claimed he was wrongfully terminated after raising concerns about what he believed to be illegal practices by the company, such as stealing content from competitors Snapchat and Instagram.
Yintao “Roger” Yu, who filed the lawsuit in Superior Court in San Francisco earlier this month, worked at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, from August 2017 to November 2018, as head of engineering for US operations.
And in a new complaint filed Friday, Yu additionally alleged that ByteDance engaged in a “culture of lawlessness” and was a “propaganda” arm of China, according to the New York Times.
“The committee maintained supreme access to all of the company’s data, including data stored in the United States,” the complaint obtained by the New York Times said.
The committee refers to a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members who were at ByteDance’s offices in Beijing, the Times said.
Yu claimed that shortly after taking the job, he realized that ByteDance had been involved in a “worldwide scheme” to steal from the app’s competitors such as Instagram and Snapchat. He painted a picture of the company’s early days in 2018, claiming that ByteDance would take videos from its competitors and use them to populate its own video services.
The former employee alleged in the complaint that he was “bothered by ByteDance’s efforts to blur legal and ethical lines.”
The claims come as the wildly popular TikTok app is at risk of being banned by US lawmakers over national security concerns. Montana lawmakers voted to completely ban TikTok in the state just weeks after CEO Shou Zi Chew spent hours testifying before Congress. And the Biden administration has threatened TikTok with a nationwide ban unless its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company, explaining an increasingly tense relationship between the two countries.
However, security experts say there is still no public evidence that the Chinese government has actually spied on people through TikTok, which does not operate in China.
“It’s not that we know TikTok has done anything, it’s that distrust of China and awareness of Chinese espionage has increased,” said James Lewis, an information security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yu says he raised concerns about intellectual property with Wenjia Zhu, who was then senior vice president of engineering.
“When informed of Mr. Yu’s concerns with the program, Zhu was dismissive of them and intellectual property violations continued unabated,” the complaint states.
Charles Jung, a lawyer for Yu, said the former employee is the most senior executive to come forward publicly.
“Tech companies in his view should be run ethically and responsibly,” Jung said in a statement to CNN. “My client is concerned with protecting US user data, the ethical operation of the app, and the well-being of ByteDance’s employees.”
In a statement to CNN, A spokesperson for ByteDance said the company is “committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we collect data in accordance with industry practices and our global policies.”
Yu is seeking compensatory damages such as lost earnings, injunction and liquidation, and punitive damages.
A ByteDance spokesperson said Yu worked on an app called Flipagram while at the company, which was discontinued due to business reasons.
“We plan to oppose what we believe are baseless allegations and allegations in this complaint,” the spokesperson said. “Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and his employment was terminated in July 2018,” Yu disputed in the complaint.
CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.