A former executive at ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has accused 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 chief engineering officer for ByteDance’s U.S. operations from August 2017 to November 2018. The complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, says Mr. Yu was fired because he raised concerns about a “worldwide scheme”[ads1]; to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property.
Among the most 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 committee, which monitored the company’s apps, “guided how the company advanced communist core values” and had a ” kill switch” which can turn off the Chinese apps completely.
“The committee maintained sovereign access to all company data, including data stored in the United States,” the complaint states.
Mr. 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 more than 150 million Americans, has become hugely popular for memes and entertainment. But lawmakers and US officials are concerned the app is sending sensitive information about Americans to Beijing.
In March, a congressional committee grilled TikTok’s CEO, Shou Chew, about the app’s Chinese ownership. Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently said that TikTok “screams out of national security concerns.” More than two dozen states have banned TikTok from public entities since November.
In an emailed statement, ByteDance said Friday that the company will “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless allegations and allegations in this complaint.”
“MR. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and his employment ended in July 2018. During his short time with the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for business reasons,” says the statement.
In his complaint, Mr. Yu, 36, said that when TikTok was trying 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 fabricated users” — essentially an army of bots — to boost engagement numbers, a practice Mr. Yu said he flagged to his superiors.
Mr Yu says he raised these concerns with Zhu Wenjia, who was responsible for the TikTok algorithm, but that Mr Zhu was “dismissive”, noting that it was “not a big deal”.
Mr. Yu, who spent part of his ByteDance tenure in its offices in China, said he also witnessed engineers for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tweaking its algorithm to elevate content that expressed hatred of Japan. In an interview, he said that the promotion of anti-Japanese sentiments, which would make it more salient to users, was done without hesitation.
“There was no debate,” he said. “They just did.”
The lawsuit also accused ByteDance engineers working on Chinese apps of degrading content that expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while making more prominent criticisms of the protests.
As an example of what was described as the “lawlessness” inside the company, the lawsuit says ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming arranged bribes for Lu Wei, a senior government official charged with internet regulation. At the time, Chinese media covered the trial of Lu Wei, who was charged in 2018 and later convicted of bribery, but there was no mention of who had paid the bribe.
TikTok has tried to convince lawmakers that it operates at arm’s length from ByteDance and that the Chinese government has no influence or special access to the app. It has been working on a costly plan to store US user data on servers run by Oracle in the US, 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 servers is “irrelevant,” he said, because engineers can be a continent away but still have access. During his tenure at the company, he said, certain engineers had “backdoor” access to user data.
His lawsuit seeks lost income, punitive damages and 220,000 ByteDance shares that were unvested when he was fired. The complaint does not specify a specific dollar amount in damages, but the shares alone would be worth tens of millions of dollars. The case was raised after several years of mediation with the company failed.
Mr. Yu is represented by Charles Jung, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in employment disputes.