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TikTok's Ties to ByteDance Under Scrutiny by U.S. Lawmakers

Bombshell report by The Wall Street Journal, U.S. lawmakers have penned a probing letter to TikTok
By Josefina Dipaolo
October 5, 2023

In the latest development surrounding TikTok, U.S. lawmakers have penned a letter raising concerns about the video-sharing platform's independence from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. This inquiry follows a recent report by The Wall Street Journal that highlighted the transfer of several high-level executives from ByteDance to TikTok, where they assumed key roles spanning advertising, human resources, monetization, business marketing, and various aspects related to TikTok's burgeoning e-commerce endeavors.

Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) authored the letter, posing pertinent questions to TikTok regarding the rationale behind these executive appointments. They underscored that these appointments raised doubts about the autonomy of TikTok's operations and the security of its U.S. users' data.

The WSJ's report shed light on the significant employee movements between the two entities, implying a continued close association between TikTok and its Beijing-based parent company. This relationship has prompted concerns, particularly regarding potential pressures from the Chinese government for access to TikTok's data or the use of the platform for propagating CCP propaganda.

While TikTok has consistently asserted its independence from China and even relocated U.S. user data to Oracle servers within the United States to avert a nationwide ban, doubts persist. The ties between TikTok and China have led to bans on the app's usage on various U.S. government-issued devices, including those used by the U.S. House of Representatives, several U.S. states, and even Montana, which became the first U.S. state to ban TikTok on personal devices. Additionally, New York City joined the list by prohibiting TikTok on city-owned devices earlier this year, following a statewide ban in 2020.

In their letter, the senators pointed out that even TikTok employees found these transfers "alarming" and humorously suggested that "TikTok is solving its ByteDance problem by moving ByteDance to the U.S." The letter highlighted the unique risks that the relationship between the two entities poses to the security and privacy of U.S. user data, referencing previous instances where TikTok was accused of spying on U.S. journalists.

TikTok had previously assured U.S. officials of a strict separation between itself and its parent company, with U.S. user data being stored on American soil under the supervision of a U.S. company. However, the recent executive transfers have raised suspicions that TikTok may be attempting to maintain ByteDance's influence while avoiding scrutiny.

TikTok has until October 13 to respond to the lawmakers' inquiries, which encompass various aspects of the employee transfers, the roles assumed by the transferred employees, and whether these changes were disclosed to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) before The WSJ's report.

The CFIUS began its review of TikTok in 2019 during the Trump administration's consideration of a national ban. The agency possesses the authority to compel TikTok to divest its U.S. operations if it deems the mitigation measures, such as the shift to Oracle servers, insufficient in safeguarding national interests.

Responding to the inquiry, TikTok stated, "In a large, global organization, it is not uncommon for employees to work on different products or geographies over the course of their career. This is neither a recent development, nor is it unique to TikTok. We welcome the opportunity to provide the Senators facts and context the Journal chose to ignore in their initial story."

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