A former executive at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Inc., who was fired in 2018, said in a lawsuit that the Chinese Communist Party had a special office within the company that gave it “supreme access” to all data, a backdoor channel he says persisted even after US user data was isolated from individual engineers in China.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in California state court, Yintao “Roger” Yu said he was fired from his job as chief engineering officer in the United States in retaliation for his complaints to supervisors about a “brazenly unlawful conduct” in the business.
ByteDance called the allegations “baseless” and said it would vigorously fight the lawsuit.
“ByteDance is committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we acquire data in accordance with industry practices and our global policy,” a spokesperson said in a statement, noting that Yu was working for the company for less than a year.
Yu alleges his bosses were dismissive when he expressed concern that ByteDance was stealing copyrighted content from other platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, as well as fabricating users to exaggerate his measures and help the Chinese Communist Party spread its propaganda to a wider audience.
He also said he was “struck by the misdirection” of TikTok CEO Shou Chew’s testimony in March before Congress to allay national security concerns over the platform’s ties to China at the time. light of his own knowledge on the ground that the CCP maintained a “backdoor channel” to US user data.
It was known within the company that a government-controlled special committee had an important role even though it didn’t work for ByteDance, Yu said.
“The Committee maintained supreme access to all company data, even data stored in the United States,” according to the lawsuit. “After receiving criticism over access from overseas, individual engineers in China were denied access to US user data, but the Committee continued to have access to it.”
Yu alleges that the company was driven by a “culture of anarchy” focused on growth at all costs.
“He was surprised by the brazenly unlawful conduct within the company, which was euphemistically excused as ‘entrepreneurship,'” according to the complaint.
Shortly after joining the company in 2017, Yu learned that ByteDance had for years undertaken a “global program (including in California) to steal and profit from the copyrighted works of others.” , according to the complaint.
He also discovered that the company was programming fake users to “like” and “follow” real user accounts to increase the engagement metrics that potential investors rely on, according to the complaint.
TikTok has come under intense congressional scrutiny and federal national security review over concerns about potential influence from the Chinese government because ByteDance is based in China. Several bills have been introduced that would limit or prohibit the application in the United States.
Just this month, in a letter to Congress, the company said it “never shared” US user data with the Chinese government and would not do so if told. asked to do so. TikTok says it is confining its sensitive US operations to a separate entity with relevant data held on Oracle Corp’s national servers.
ByteDance relied on software to remove video from competitors’ websites to make its service more popular with users, according to the complaint. “These actions were taken without the permission of the content creators and represented an illegal effort to take advantage of well-established online video hosting websites,” according to the complaint.
Concerned that ByteDance is skirting “legal and ethical lines” and potential liability for theft, Yu says he has repeatedly raised objections, including to a senior vice president of engineering who reported directly to the ByteDance CEO, Yiming Zhang. But the senior vice president dismissed his concerns and the violation continued, according to the complaint.
Yu identified a supervisor who was “able to retaliate” against him as Kelly Zhang, who is now the general manager of ByteDance China.
Yu is seeking an order from a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordering ByteDance to stop deleting social media content that belongs to others.
The lawsuit also details Yu’s objection to the company’s treatment of an unidentified employee with depression. He says he filed a complaint with ByteDance’s HR manager about an illegal plan to fire the employee.
Yu, a California resident, was hired with stock options and a guaranteed payout of $600,000 for intellectual property from his own company, Tank Exchange, on the condition that he stay with ByteDance for two years, according to the complaint.
The ByteDance spokesperson said that during “Yu’s brief stay with the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for business reasons.”
ByteDance claims to have informed Yu that his dismissal was due to a downsizing, but he claims he never received notice. In November 2018, he was fired without the stock option grant that he said had vested. In 2019, he filed a discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, according to the lawsuit.
The suit was reported earlier by The New York Times.
The case is Yu v. ByteDance Inc., CGC-23-606246, Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco.
–With the help of Alex Barinka.