ByteDance spends millions lobbying, outpacing prior years amid crackdown on TikTok’s China ties

ByteDance spends millions lobbying, outpacing prior years amid crackdown on TikTok’s China ties

This article originally appeared in OpenSecrets. Sign up for their weekly newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, poured millions into lobbying spending amid a nationwide push to ban the video-sharing app after U.S. officials increased scrutiny over data security and its Chinese government ties.

TikTok parent company ByteDance spent a record $2.4 million on federal lobbying during the second second quarter of this year — more than any other quarter since it started lobbying in 2019. Spending in the last quarter puts the company on track for another record-breaking year a new OpenSecrets analysis of Lobbying Disclosure Act filings found.

After ByteDance spent a record $5.3 million on federal lobbying in 2022 — more than all but three internet companies last year — the TikTok parent company poured another $4.28 million into federal lobbying during the first half of 2023, outpacing the roughly $3.25 million it spent at the same point last year.

RELATED ARTICLE: Former NFL player Derrick Dockery quietly becomes a guardian for TikTok on Capitol Hill

In total, ByteDance poured more than $17.7 million into lobbying since the Chinese-owned social media company first reported payments to federal lobbyists in 2019.

ByteDance’s lobbying team has several “revolving door” lobbyists who previously held federal government positions working for prominent members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as well as several powerhouse lobbying firms with government connections in their arsenal.

Former members of Congress on the team of revolving door lobbyists working for TikTok’s interests include former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Breaux (D-La.) as well as former Reps. Jeff Denham(R-Calif.) and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

Despite ByteDance’s robust lobbying efforts and TikTok’s massive U.S. user base, the app has faced increased scrutiny from lawmakers looking to address potential national security and data privacy risks related to Chinese ownership.

On July 10, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) announced that Congress is considering changes to the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act — also known as the RESTRICT Act — a bill the Senate Intelligence Committee chair sponsored in March as part of efforts to crack down on TikTok and other companies that are deemed to pose a national security risk.

As written, the RESTRICT Act would grant the president and U.S. Commerce Department sweeping authority to address threats originating in countries deemed to be “foreign adversaries.”

The legislation is endorsed by President Joe Biden’s White House and has attracted bipartisan support in the Senate but Warner claims lobbying spending “slowed a bit of our momentum.”

Warner also told Reuters that Congress is working on changes to address concerns that his legislation would usher in a broad expansion of government power.

“The RESTRICT Act is using TikTok as a smokescreen for the largest expansion of executive power” in decades, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee lamented when expressing opposition to the bill in March.

A wide range of advocacy groups and corporations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Conservative Union have spent on lobbying around the legislation, scrutinizing it due to First Amendment concerns and the risk of executive overreach.

While the bill has received support from groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, even some groups and lawmakers pushing to ban TikTok have criticized the bill’s approach as overly broad.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been especially critical of the bill, going as far as claiming “As it is written right now, it will not ban TikTok and it will probably make it impossible to ever ban TikTok.”

In December, Rubio joined Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) in introducing another bill to ban TikTok from operating in the U.S.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) introduced legislation in January that would bar TikTok from being downloaded on any U.S. devices and ban any transactions with its parent company, ByteDance, as well.

While the proposals to ban TikTok across the U.S. are still under consideration, Congress passedlegislation to ban TikTok from federal government-owned devices as part of an annual appropriations bill in December 2022 and efforts to block the app have continued to gain momentum across the country.

In May, Montana became the first U.S. state to prohibit app stores from offering TikTok for download.

TikTok is currently fighting the ban, which is set to take effect in Montana on Jan. 1, 2024. As part of that effort, the company is covering legal fees for influencers in the state who are challenging the legislation in an ongoing lawsuit. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.

At least 33 states have also taken action to restrict TikTok on state-issued devices and several more have proposed similar bans.

Last week, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research – which works to study the impact of technology on society — claiming a ban on TikTok at Texas state institutions violates the First Amendment. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) signed the law banning TikTok on state-owned or issued devices for employees in state agencies, including state university systems in December, though the law is not slated to go into effect until next year.

As lawmakers grapple with how to balance the perceived national security threats posed by TikTok with constitutional issues raised by prohibitions, the growing push to restrict TikTok across the U.S. has put pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to address concerns around the video-sharing app due to suspicions that it could be used as a tool of foreign influence.

U.S. officials have long speculated Chinese government actors may be able to view the personal information of TikTok users and more information has continued to emerge.

In June 2022, BuzzFeed News reported that ByteDance employees based in China have repeatedly accessed private data about American TikTok users, prompting senators on both sides of the aisle to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company.

TikTok has emphatically rejected spying allegations. To distance the video-sharing app’s U.S. operations’ backend functions and code from its Chinese arm, TikTok is currently in the process of working with Austin-based software giant Oracle to store all American user data in the U.S. As a part of the collaboration dubbed “Project Texas,” TikTok is also reportedly giving Oracle access to audit its algorithms and content moderation policies.

At a House hearing in March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified that “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore” and that “American data is stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.”

According to Chew’s testimony, all new U.S. user data is being stored inside the country and that TikTok started deleting historic U.S. user data from non-Oracle servers in March, a process expected to be completed this year.

Also in March, the Biden administration demanded TikTok’s Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a U.S. ban. Biden ordered the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review TikTok in June 2021, after withdrawing former President Donald Trump’s executive orders banning new downloads of the app in the U.S.

The battle over TikTok’s operations in the U.S. continues, with ongoing legislative debates and regulatory actions shaping the future of the popular social media app. As lawmakers and the Biden administration grapple with data security and national security concerns, ByteDance’s lobbying efforts remain a significant factor in determining the outcome of this high-stakes clash.

OpenSecrets is a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit research and news organization tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.