ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of social media platform TikTok, has dramatically upped its U.S. lobbying effort since 2020 as U.S.-China relations continue to sour and is now the fourth-largest Internet company in spending on federal lobbying as of last year, according to newly released data.
Publicly available information collected by OpenSecrets, a Washington nonprofit that tracks campaign finance and lobbying data, shows that ByteDance and its subsidiaries, including TikTok, the wildly popular short video app, have spent more than $13 million on U.S. lobbying since 2020. In 2022 alone, Fox News reported, the companies spent $5.4 million on lobbying.
Only Amazon.com ($19.7 million) and the parent companies of Google ($11 million) and Facebook ($19 million) spent more, according to OpenSecrets.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, ByteDance spent $1.2 million on lobbying, according to Fox News.
The lobbyists hired by ByteDance include former U.S. senators Trent Lott and John Breaux; David Urban, a former senior adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign who was also a former chief of staff for the late Senator Arlen Specter; Layth Elhassani, special assistant to President Barack Obama in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs; and Samantha Clark, former deputy staff director of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
In November, TikTok hired Jamal Brown, a deputy press secretary at the Pentagon who was national press secretary for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, to manage policy communications for the Americas, with a focus on the U.S., according to Politico.
“This is kind of the template for how modern tech lobbying goes,” Dan Auble, a senior researcher at Open Secrets, told Vox. “These companies come on the scene and suddenly start spending substantial amounts of money. And ByteDance has certainly done that.”
U.S. officials have criticized TikTok as a security risk due to ties between ByteDance and the Chinese government. The worry is that user data collected by TikTok could be passed to Beijing, so lawmakers have been trying to regulate or even ban the app in the U.S.
In 2019, TikTok paid a $5.7 million fine as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over violating children’s privacy rights. The Trump administration attempted unsuccessfully to ban downloads of TikTok from app stores and outlaw transactions between Americans and ByteDance.
As of late December, TikTok has been banned on federally managed devices, and 19 states had at least partially blocked the app from state-managed devices.
The number of federal bills that ByteDance has been lobbying on increased to 14 in 2022 from eight in 2020.
With TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew scheduled to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, and a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee vote in March on a bill that would ban the use of TikTok in the U.S., the company is expected to further expand its U.S. influence campaign.
Erich Andersen, general counsel and head of corporate affairs at ByteDance and TikTok, told the New York Times in January that “it was necessary for us to accelerate our own explanation of what we were prepared to do and the level of commitments on the national security process.”
TikTok has been met with a mixed response to its efforts to prove that its operations in the U.S. are outside of Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Michael Beckerman, who oversees public policy for the Americas at TikTok, met with Mike Gallagher, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on China Affairs, on February 1 to explain the company’s U.S. data security plans.
According to Reuters, Gallagher’s spokesperson, Jordan Dunn, said after the meeting that the lawmaker “found their argument unpersuasive.”
Congressman Ken Buck and Senator Josh Hawley on January 25 introduced a bill, No TikTok on United States Devices Act, which will instruct President Joe Biden to use the International Emergency Economic Powers to prohibit downloads of TikTok and ban commercial activity with ByteDance.
Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute and a telecom regulation lawyer, told VOA Mandarin that he doubted the Buck-Hawley bill would become law. He said that calls to ban TikTok began during the Trump administration, yet TikTok has remained a visible and influential presence in the U.S.
James Lewis, director of the CSIS Technology and Public Policy Program, told VOA Mandarin, “An outright ban will be difficult because TikTok is speech, which is protected speech. But it [the U.S. government] can ban financial transactions, that’s possible.”
Senators Marco Rubio and Angus King reintroduced bipartisan legislation on February 10 to ban TikTok and other similar apps from operating in the U.S. by “blocking and prohibiting all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern unless they fully divest of dangerous foreign ownership.”
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency group that reviews transactions involving foreign parties for possible national security threats, ordered ByteDance to divest TikTok in 2020. The two parties have yet to reach an agreement after two years of talks.
Chuck Flint, vice president of strategic relationships at Breitbart News who is also the former chief of staff for Senator Marsha Blackburn, told VOA Mandarin, “I expect that CFIUS will be hesitant to ban TikTok. Anything short of an outright ban will leave China’s TikTok data pipeline in place.”
China experts believe that TikTok wants to reach an agreement with CFIUS rather than being banned from the U.S. or being forced to sell TikTok’s U.S. business to an American company.
Lewis of CSIS said, “Every month that we don’t do CFIUS is a step closer towards some kind of ban.”
Julian Ku, professor of law and faculty director of international programs at Hofstra University, told VOA Mandarin, “The problem is that no matter what they offer, there’s no way to completely shield the data from the Chinese government … as long as there continues to be a shared entity.”
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.