Former ByteDance Executive Accuses Firm Of ‘Lawlessness’

ByteDance, TikTok

ByteDance says it will ‘vigorously’ fight allegations by former executive as TikTok subsidiary faces data privacy criticism

TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance said it would “vigorously” fight a lawsuit by a former executive that accuses it of a “culture of lawlessness”.

The lawsuit by Yu Yintao, who worked for the company from 2017 to 2018, is an embarrassment for ByteDance at a time when the company faces growing calls for a complete ban in the United States over concerns citizens’ data could be misused by the Chinese government.

Yu’s lawsuit includes allegations that at the time he worked for ByteDance Chinese Communist Party officials had direct access to US user data.

He also accuses ByteDance of serving “as a useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party”.

Yu Yintao, left, with ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming at the company's Beijing headquarters in 2015. Image credit: Via Yu Yintao
Yu Yintao, left, with ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming at the company’s Beijing headquarters in 2015. Image credit: Via Yu Yintao

‘Propaganda tool’

TikTok, which has more than 150 users in the US, has tried to distance itself from its parent company.

Chief executive Shou Chew told a congressional committee in March that the Chinese government did not have access to data held by the US TikTok subsidiary, which he said is stored within the country.

But in his lawsuit Yu said ByteDance’s headquarters in Beijing had a special unit of CCP members sometimes referred to as “the Committee”, which monitored the firm’s apps, “guided how the company advanced core Communist values”, and held a “death switch” that could switch off the Chinese apps altogether.

“The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States,” says Yu’s complaint.

He alleges that during his tenure as head of engineering for ByteDance’s US operations, from August 2017 to November 2018, he saw that the company had a “worldwide scheme” to steal content from rival websites such as Instagram and Snapchat.

Fake users

The company also fabricated users, creating bots to boost its engagement metrics, he said.

His complaints about these actions were disregarded and he was later fired, he alleges.

Yu said he witnessed engineers for TikTok’s Chinese sister platform Douyin routinely alter algorithms to elevate content that expressed hatred for Japan, demote content supportive of Hong Kong democracy protests and promote content critical of the protests.

“There was no debate. They just did it,” he wrote in the complaint.

“We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations,” ByteDance said late on Monday in a statement provided to Silicon UK.

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