Former ByteDance Executive Claims TikTok’s Parent Company Operated With “Culture of Lawlessness”

Yintao Yu, the former head of engineering at ByteDance for their US operations, has accused the company of having a “culture of lawlessness” that included stealing content from Snapchat and Instagram in its early years. In a wrongful dismissal suit filed on Friday in San Francisco Superior Court, Mr. Yu also claims that TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, is a “useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.” Mr. Yu was fired after he voiced concerns about a “worldwide scheme” to steal and profit from other companies’ intellectual property. The lawsuit includes a number of allegations regarding the company’s activities in China, including the existence of a designated unit of Communist Party members known as “the Committee” who monitored the company’s apps.

The claims come at a time when the US government is intensifying its scrutiny of TikTok and calling into question its ties to China. With over 150 million users in America, the app has gained immense popularity for entertainment and memes, but lawmakers and officials have raised concerns that the app may be sharing sensitive information about American users with Beijing. In March, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Chew, was called to testify before a congressional committee about the app’s ownership. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has also spoken out about TikTok’s “national security concerns.” Since November, over two dozen US states have banned the app from government devices.

ByteDance responded to the lawsuit on Friday by stating that it would “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.” The company also noted that Mr. Yu worked for them for less than a year and that his employment ended in July 2018.

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Mr. Yu’s lawsuit includes a number of allegations, including that ByteDance engineers copied videos and posts from Snapchat and Instagram without permission and then posted them to the app in order to attract users in its early days. He also claimed that ByteDance created fake user accounts in order to boost engagement numbers and that he flagged this practice to his superiors. Mr. Yu also noted that he witnessed engineers for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tweak the algorithm to promote content that expressed hatred for Japan.

The lawsuit also accused ByteDance of demoting content that expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while making criticisms of the protests more prominent. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, facilitated bribes to a senior government official charged with internet regulation in China.

TikTok has denied any influence or special access to the app by the Chinese government and has emphasized its efforts to operate independently of ByteDance. TikTok has been working on Project Texas, which involves storing US user data on servers operated by Oracle in the US. Mr. Yu, however, claims that, during his time with the company, some engineers in China still had access to American user data.

Mr. Yu is seeking lost earnings, punitive damages, and 220,000 shares of ByteDance that had not vested by the time he was fired – which could be worth millions of dollars. The lawsuit was filed after several years of efforts to resolve the dispute via mediation had failed. Mr. Yu is being represented by Charles Jung, a San Francisco-employed lawyer specializing in employment disputes.

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