Inside TikTok’s battle to circumvent bans and influence governments

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With the 2020 election looming, the company seemed to want to hedge its bets on the outcome. CFIUS supposedly had begun an investigation about the company. Earlier that year, ByteDance was able to hire David Urban, a prominent Republican lobbyist who was also an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Urban first worked as an outside consultant and later as an executive vice president at ByteDance. (He is now an external consultant again.)

But the company also needed the help of Democrats, as the party assumed it would have significant power in Congress after 2020, even if Trump were re-elected.

Fears about foreign ownership of TikTok were growing, not waning, as the campaign progressed. SKDK, the firm linked to the Biden campaign, not only rejected a proposal to work for TikTok, but in the summer of 2020 instructed employees to remove the app from their phones as a security measure. Memories of the 2016 campaign foreign cyber intrusion, when Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee, were still fresh in the minds of Democratic campaign operatives.

Around 2020, the second Washington lobbyist, who was then in contact with the company, said that TikTok was looking for someone who could refute the narrative that they were collecting data and handing it over to China.

In 2021, a third Washington lobbyist, who is a Democrat, recalled being approached by a TikTok consultant with the message that the company was willing to put big money on the table for Democratic talent.

Since the 2020 presidential election, TikTok has been much more successful in recruiting lobbyists and companies with close ties to the Democratic Party. Adding to SKDK’s recent sweeping decision to work for TikTok, the company has hired FGS Global, another PR agency linked to Biden’s political network. He also retained the public relations giant Edelman, a powerful firm with relationships between both parties. Jamal Brown, a former national press secretary for the Biden campaign who was most recently deputy press secretary at the Pentagon, is now a spokesman for the company.

Many of those who work for TikTok and ByteDance, including SKDK, FGS, Edelman, Crowley, Denham, Gordon and Leiter, the former counterterrorism official, did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment on the record.

ByteDance’s generous spending goes beyond the generous salaries and fees of lobbyists. It also extends to quackery, particularly in Europe, where there is less fear among politicians of being seen as friends of Chinese companies.

Indeed, in Brussels, lawmakers in the European Parliament and officials at the EU Commission, the EU’s executive arm, describe the TikTok team as articulate and ingratiating, and careful to strike a more conciliatory tone than representatives of American companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. . They had an agenda to push, but they would not make aggressive threats about EU laws like the Digital Services Act.

“His lobbying was non-adversarial compared to US companies,” an official said. «They always said they wanted to cooperate.»

In Europe, at least, TikTok has tapped into the dislike of big American tech. Bertram, vice president of government relations and public policy for Europe, told POLITICO that the issue of TikTok’s ownership «feels like a red herring… As Europeans, I don’t think we share the belief that all big companies should be Silicon Valley.» technology company.”

Earlier this year, Chew, the CEO of TikTok, appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos and toured Brussels to meet with European policymakers. In Belgium, he met with around two dozen European lawmakers and EU Commission political officials in a closed-door session at De Warande, an elite members-only club located near Belgium’s Royal Palace and the embassy. US. He took photos with tech-focused politicians. such as Dita Charanzová, Vice President of the European Parliament, and Andreas Schwaba German member who negotiated the Digital Markets Act, a law to limit the market power of big tech companies.

The TikTok executive tried to send a reassuring message at the event. Even as the company has faced increasing political hostility in the US, many European lawmakers have continued to view the company in less antagonistic terms, as a social media giant that needs to be regulated, but perhaps not. especially troublesome.

Chew was “very clear about the strong US concern about China,” Schwab said, adding: “They wanted to explain a little bit about their legal structure, their precautionary measures, knowing that there could still be questions.”

After giving a speech about TikTok’s business model, the CEO wanted to listen, Charanzová said. «He wanted to understand the concerns in Europe.»

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