Senators Demand Answers From TikTok Over Its Hiring of ByteDance Executives

Mimi Nguyen Ly
By Mimi Nguyen Ly
October 4, 2023Congress
Senators Demand Answers From TikTok Over Its Hiring of ByteDance Executives
The logo for social media app TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone on an American flag background in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 3, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Two senators from the Republican and Democrat parties announced they’re seeking answers from Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok after it hired several high-level executives from its Chinese company ByteDance.

Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a letter (pdf) on Tuesday that the hirings “further [call] into question the independence of TikTok’s operations and the security of its U.S. users’ information.”

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many high-level executives have moved from ByteDance to TikTok since the start of the year, moving from China to the United States, the senators noted in their letter.

The former ByteDance executives are now in charge of important areas in TikTok such as advertising, human resources, monetization, business marketing, and more, and they have even brought their own staff from Beijing, according to the WSJ report.

“These changes were alarming enough that employees raised concerns about the lack of a true separation from ByteDance—reportedly joking that TikTok is solving its ByteDance problem by moving ByteDance to the U.S.,” the senators wrote.

Over 150 million Americans use TikTok. But owing to national security concerns, including about potential influence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), some U.S. lawmakers have called for banning it nationwide.

In a release on Tuesday, the lawmakers said that, given the CCP’s ability to access data held by Chinese companies, the transfer of employees from ByteDance to TikTok “creates further questions about TikTok’s independence and may pose a significant national security risk.”

NTD Photo
A woman walks past the headquarters of ByteDance, the parent company of video sharing app TikTok, in Beijing, China, on Sept. 16, 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Avoiding Suspicion’

Ms. Blackburn and Mr. Blumenthal demanded from TikTok’s CEO answers to a series of questions, including what security protocols TikTok is imposing on ByteDance employees who transfer from China to the United States.

“The personnel changes give the impression that TikTok is attempting to preserve ByteDance’s influence over TikTok while avoiding suspicion,” the U.S. senators told Mr. Chew. “Once again, TikTok’s actions appear to align with a pattern of misleading actions and broken commitments regarding serious matters related to users’ safety and national security.”

They also asked Mr. Chew about how many employees were hired by TikTok who had previously worked at ByteDance prior to Dec. 31, 2022 and after Jan. 1, 2023, as well as the roles these employees now hold at TikTok.

Other questions delved into whether these staff transitions had been disclosed to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States before the news broke in The Wall Street Journal.

Sens. Blackburn and Blumenthal
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) (L) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) speak during a hearing in Washington on Oct. 5, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Ms. Blackburn and Mr. Blumenthal also asked about whether there are any “rules, restrictions, or controls” on communications between former ByteDance employees now at TikTok and personnel based in China, as well as how these communications are supervised or overseen by TikTok.

“TikTok executives, including personnel based in China, have been found spying on American journalists, and, in leaked recordings, its staff acknowledged that ‘everything is seen in China,'” the lawmakers noted in their letter. “As the intelligence community has repeatedly warned, Chinese national security laws provide the Chinese government significant legal control over any data within the reach of Chinese companies, thereby putting any data held by ByteDance in the reach of the Chinese government.”

The two gave TikTok until Oct. 13 to respond to the questions.

TikTok has repeatedly claimed it is independent from the CCP, and has even shifted U.S. user data to Oracle servers in the United States in hopes of preventing a nationwide ban.

TikTok on Tuesday said it welcomed the chance to provide senators facts about its hiring practices. “In a large, global organization, it is not uncommon for employees to work on different products or geographies over the course of their career,” a spokesperson said.

The Epoch Times has reached out to TikTok for further comment.

Banning TikTok

At least 34 of 50 U.S. states and the U.S. federal government have banned TikTok from being downloaded on government-owned devices, and the U.S. armed forces have also prohibited the app on military devices.

House lawmakers in February reintroduced bipartisan legislation that would ban TikTok from operating within the United States—the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act—but it has since stalled.

The RESTRICT Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators, is another stalled bill. It does not mention TikTok by name but is intended to target the app. The legislation would allow the secretary of commerce to review foreign-linked communication technology products and services, including social media apps, and to take necessary action if the technologies threaten U.S. national security or the safety of its citizens.

The White House supports the bill, but certain House Republicans have voiced concerns, believing it grants the Biden administration excessive authority in deciding which apps to limit or ban. Third party groups have also weighed in, saying the bill could potentially infringe on U.S. citizens’ freedoms. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, has been working with the White House and other lawmakers to amend the bill.

Former President Donald Trump, during his term in office, tried to ban new downloads of TikTok and WeChat through a Commerce Department order in 2020, but the bans were blocked by multiple courts and never took effect.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who unsuccessfully sought unanimous consent to win approval for legislation to ban TikTok in March, plans to force a vote on the issue later this year.

“We need to come back to it and we need to ban it,” he told Reuters in September. “[TikTok] has hired lobbyists by the bazillion, they are in the halls constantly and they have been able to stop progress.”

Montana, the first U.S. state to fully ban TikTok, is being sued by the company over the ban set for Jan. 1, 2024. A judge has scheduled an Oct. 12 hearing on the lawsuit.

New York City recently became the latest government to prohibit TikTok on government-owned devices, following a state-wide ban in 2020.

Reuters contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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