A former executive at TikTok parent ByteDance Inc. who was fired in 2018 said in a lawsuit that the Chinese Communist Party had a special office inside the company that gave it “supreme access” to all data, a backdoor channel he said continued even afterwards. US user data is withheld from individual Chinese engineers.
In a complaint filed Friday in California state court, Yintao “Roger” Yu said he was terminated from his job as head of US engineering in retaliation for his complaints to supervisors about ” unlawful conduct” of the company.
ByteDance called the allegations “baseless” and said it would vigorously fight the case.
“ByteDance is committed to respecting the intellectual property of other companies, and we obtain data in accordance with industry practices and our global policy,” a spokesperson said in a statement, saying that Yu worked for the company for less than a year.
Yu alleged that his bosses were not involved when he expressed concern that ByteDance was stealing copyrighted content from other platforms including Instagram and Snapchatas well as making users exaggerate its standards and help the Chinese Communist Party spread propaganda to a larger audience.
He also said he was “struck in the wrong direction” by TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Chew’s March testimony before Congress to ease national security concerns about the platform’s ties to China because of his own on-the-job knowledge that the CCP maintains a “backdoor channel” to US user data.
It was known within the company that a special committee controlled by the government played an important role even though it did not act on ByteDance’s behalf, Yu said.
“The Committee maintains maximum access to all company data, even data stored in the United States,” according to the suit. “After receiving criticism about access from abroad, individual Chinese engineers were banned from accessing US user data, but the Committee continued to have access.”
Yu alleged that the company was driven by a “culture of transgression” that focused on growth at all costs.
“He was appalled by the egregious unlawful conduct within the company, euphemistically attributed to ‘entrepreneurship,'” according to the complaint.
Shortly after he joined the company in 2017, Yu learned that ByteDance had for years carried out a “worldwide scheme (including California) to steal and profit from copyrighted act of others,” according to the complaint.
He also discovered that the company programmed fictitious users to “like” and “follow” real user accounts in order to boost engagement metrics relied on by potential investors, according to the complaint.
TikTok is under intense scrutiny from Congress and a federal national security review over concerns about potential influence from the Chinese government because ByteDance is based in China. Several bills have been introduced to limit or ban the app in the US.
Earlier this month in a letter to Congress, the company said it had “never shared” any US user data with the Chinese government, and not when asked to do so. TikTok says it is in the process of spinning off sensitive US operations into a separate entity with related data stored. Oracle Corp.’s domestic servers.
ByteDance relies on the software to remove video from competitors’ websites so that its service appears more popular to users, according to the complaint. “These actions were taken without the consent of the content creators and represent an unlawful effort to obtain content against entrenched online video hosting websites,” according to the complaint.
Concerned about ByteDance crossing “legal and ethical lines,” and potential liability for theft, Yu says he has repeatedly raised objections, including with a senior vice president. in engineering who reports directly to ByteDance CEO Yiming Zhang. But the senior vice president dismissed her concerns and the violation continued, according to the complaint.
Yu identified one supervisor who was in a “position to retaliate” against him as Kelly Zhang, who is now the chief executive officer of ByteDance China.
Yu sought an order from a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordering ByteDance to stop scraping social media content belonging to others.
The lawsuit also details Yu’s objection to the company’s treatment of an unidentified employee suffering from depression. He said that he filed a complaint with the head of human resources of ByteDance about an illegal plan to fire the employee.
Yu, a California resident, was hired with stock options and a guaranteed payment of $600,000 for the intellectual property of his own company, Tank Exchange, with the condition that he stay with ByteDance for two year, according to the complaint.
A ByteDance spokesperson said that during Yu’s “short time at the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for business reasons.”
ByteDance admitted that it informed Yu that his termination was due to a decrease in the number of people, but he argued that he never received any notifications. In November 2018, he was terminated without the stock option award he said was vested. In 2019, she filed a discrimination complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, according to the suit.
The case was previously reported by the New York Times.
The case is Yu v. ByteDance Inc., CGC-23-606246, Superior Court of California, San Francisco County.
–With help from Alex Barinka.