How TikTok and its parent company spent over $13 million on struggling lobbying campaign
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TikTok and its parent company have spent more than $13 million on lobbying the federal government since 2019.
TiKTok’s and ByteDance’s lobbying efforts are directly linked, but have not appeared to yield results as lawmakers push to either sever the app’s ties to its Chinese parent company or ban it outright.
Lawmakers are floating several bills that could limit access to TikTok or even allow the Biden administration to ban it.
TikTok and its parent company combined to spend more than $13 million on lobbying federal government officials since 2019 — an effort that appears to have fallen flat as lawmakers push proposals targeting the app’s ownership by a Chinese company or even seek to ban TikTok in the U.S. outright. Weeks after Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced legislation that would bar TikTok downloads nationwide, Buck’s staff received a call in February from Michael Beckerman, the head of the social media company’s U.S. public policy shop, according to a person close to Buck. Beckerman pushed back on concerns from Buck’s staff that TikTok is harvesting customer data, and advocated for the company’s new initiative known as Project Texas, this person explained. Project Texas is TikTok’s effort to place its U.S. customer data into a secure hub managed by the tech giant Oracle, which is meant to ease U.S. government concerns that the information could be accessed by Chinese parent company ByteDance or members of the ruling party in China. The lobbying comes amid a sustained effort by TikTok to play down fears raised by lawmakers who want to ban the app, which has 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. The company has tried to show it can address concerns about user information without an outright ban, but most lawmakers at a contentious hearing about TikTok this month seemed unconvinced Project Texas would adequately do so.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers at the hearing that China-based employees at ByteDance may have access to some U.S. data from the app. But he assured them employees would no longer have that data once Project Texas is complete. The sustained lobbying pressure and Chew’s testimony so far have not stifled the effort on Capitol Hill to sever TikTok’s ties to its Chinese owner or limit access to the app. Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok, did not deny any element of this story. She defended the work of TikTok’s team in Washington and said the company is trying to address lawmakers’ privacy and safety concerns. “Our team in Washington is — and always has been — focused on educating lawmakers and stakeholders about our company and our service,” Oberwetter said. “We will continue our work to educate lawmakers and the American public about our progress in implementing Project Texas to address national security concerns, and we will continue to work with lawmakers, stakeholders, and our peer companies on solutions that address the industrywide issues of privacy and safety.”
One of the leading proposals targeting TikTok is the RESTRICT Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Thune, R-S.D.. The bill, which does not yet have companion legislation in the House, would give the Commerce secretary the authority to evaluate national security risks related to certain technology transactions with firms or individuals in a select group of foreign adversary countries, including China. The Commerce secretary could recommend the president take action up to a ban.
Another proposal is the DATA Act, introduced by Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. It would revoke protections that have typically shielded creative content from U.S. sanctions. It would also mandate the president impose sanctions on China-based companies that transfer Americans’ sensitive personal data to individuals or businesses in China. The proposal passed through the GOP-led House Foreign Relations Committee along party lines, with Democrats fearing it was rushed.
At the furthest end of the extreme is the legislation from Hawley and Buck that simply seeks to ban TikTok outright by directing the president to block transactions with ByteDance.