by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As evidence mounts that TikTok’s Chinese parent company spies on American citizens, the Biden administration has let the social media giant avoid disclosing its extensive lobbying and public relations activities to the American public.
According to a report released last week, executives at ByteDance’s Internal Audit and Risk Control department developed a plan to track the location data for at least two American citizens. The report adds to longstanding concerns that the Chinese government could use TikTok to scoop up data on Americans.
But ByteDance has so far dodged extensive federal regulations and is in talks with the Biden administration on how to continue operating TikTok in the United States. In addition to a cavalry of in-house lobbyists, ByteDance has three Washington firms on retainer to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. ByteDance has spent more than $4,360,000 so far this year on lobbying.
Details of that lobbying campaign are largely kept under wraps because the U.S. government does not require ByteDance to disclose its lobbying activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that requires lobbyists for foreign governments or political parties to disclose their lobbying contracts and outreach to American policymakers and media organizations. The disclosures can provide a roadmap of how foreign organizations try to influence policy in Washington.
Instead, ByteDance’s lobbyists disclose their influence activities under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, a far less transparent regulation that only requires lobbyists to disclose their revenues and issues on which they lobby. Lobbyists for foreign companies often exploit the loophole by registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act instead of the Foreign Agents Registration Act by claiming they are not working for foreign governments.
Watchdog groups and policymakers have expressed concern with the loophole.