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Global business: ByteDance hires prominent ex-lawmakers from both parties as it seeks to secure Washington lobbying influence

Updated: Jul 11


ByteDance TikTok lobbying
ByteDance has staffed up for a lobbying showdown at the U.S. Capitol over the future of TikTok. (Photo from the Wix library)
 

Part 2 of a three-part series

 

By CHEN SU

Global Business Journalism reporter


ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, has significantly increased its lobbying activities in Washington, D.C., in response to mounting concerns from American authorities regarding data security and its connections to the Chinese government.


In addition to spending more money than ever before on lobbying expenses, ByteDance has hired some of the biggest names in the Washington lobbying constellation to represent it on Capitol Hill as it seeks to block implementation of a law that would force the company to sell TikTok to a non-Chinese entity or face a ban in the United States.



Among the notable figures on the company's lobbying team are Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader, John Breaux, a Democrat and founder of the Senate Centrist Coalition, Joe Crowley, once the fourth-ranking House Democrat, Bart Gordon, an influential former Democrat and chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, and Jeff Denham, a California Republican with strong ties to his former House colleagues. This powerhouse quintet reflects a strategy known as "revolving door" lobbyists, where retired legislators leverage their insider knowledge and political networks to advance a client's interests.


ByteDance's lobbying strategy also involves a team of experienced professional lobbyists, as well. Bruce Mehlman served as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy under President George W. Bush and was general counsel to the Republican National Committee before joining the tech sector as policy counsel to Cisco Systems. He is joined by David Urban, a former 2016 senior adviser to Donald Trump's campaign who previously worked as chief of staff to then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter. His close ties to Trump are evident in the former president's 2018 decision to make him chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He is also a ubiquitous presence on American television as a "talking head" political analyst for CNN.

 



ByteDance's 47 lobbyists is more than double the number it employed in 2019, before its world changed in 2020 when then-President Trump issued an executive order seeking to ban the TikTok app in the United States. (Trump recently reversed his position and now opposes a ban on TikTok.) The company nearly tripled its lobbying force within a year.


After shedding five lobbyists following its court victory over the Trump administration on the attempted ban, ByteDance has slowly rebuilt its lobbying force amid the latest political and legal challenges from Capitol Hill and the Biden administration.


In the second quarter of 2023, the time of the most aggressive public relations push for TikTok, ByteDance spent $2.4 million on lobbying, its highest quarterly expenditure to that point since it began lobbying in 2019. It ended the year spending about $8.7 million, up from $5.3 million in 2022, when it ranked as the fourth-largest spender among internet companies.


In the first quarter of 2024, when the legislative ban hit the House floor for a vote, ByteDance spent even more – $2.68 million – on lobbying, an increase of 72.9% from the same period in 2023, and the number of lobbyists on the payroll also increased.


ByteDance TikTok lobbying
The bill to force ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban passed the House overwhelmingly in April.

After the House passed legislation in April requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban on the app, the final decision went to the U.S. Senate. ByteDance was counting on a strong lobbying push to kill the proposal aided by its well-connected Senate specialists Lott, Breaux and Urban. If the spending that has been disclosed thus far is any indicator, ByteDance's lobbying budget for 2024 should exceed that of 2023, regardless of TikTok's ultimate fate.


The increase in lobbying presence illustrates ByteDance's efforts to influence national policy amid increased scrutiny over data security and its ties to the Chinese government. But efforts to restrict TikTok have gained traction at the state level in the United States, as well.


Montana became the first state to ban app stores from offering TikTok for download, effective from January 1, 2024. TikTok is challenging this ban in court and covering legal expenses for influencers contesting the legislation. Additionally, at least 33 states have implemented restrictions on TikTok for devices issued by state authorities, reflecting widespread concerns about data security and privacy.


In response to mounting pressures, TikTok has implemented measures to address data privacy and security concerns, such as partnering with Oracle to store all U.S. user data in the United States. However, allegations of data misuse persist, prompting calls for a Federal Trade Commission investigation.


ByteDance TikTok lobbying
TikTok has tried to rally its users to lobby on its behalf.

As the debate surrounding TikTok's operations in the United States intensifies, ByteDance's lobbying efforts underscore the significant stakes involved. The company's unprecedented lobbying expenditure is a clear indicator of its commitment to influencing the regulatory landscape in its favor. ByteDance's strategy includes hiring experienced lobbyists and former government officials to navigate the complex political environment and to advocate for policies that would allow TikTok to continue operating in the U.S. market.


The outcome of this confrontation will profoundly shape TikTok's future in the United States – and its parent company's bottom line. Should ByteDance succeed in its lobbying efforts, it could result in more favorable regulatory conditions, allowing TikTok to maintain and possibly expand its user base. Conversely, failure to assuage regulatory concerns could lead to severe restrictions or even a ban, significantly impacting ByteDance's global strategy and financial performance.


 

Read the complete three-part series

 
 
 
 

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