Support Local Journalism

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Thank you for all of your comments, ideas, photos and support!

By Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Center for Responsive Politics

TikTok is one of the most popular and fastest-growing apps in the U.S. But unless its pricey lobbying campaign pays dividends, the video-sharing app’s time in the limelight could be coming to an end.

Both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said the U.S. is considering banning TikTok, which is run by the Chinese company ByteDance, amid concerns that users’ data could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party. White House trade advisor Peter Navarro told viewers during an interview with Fox News Sunday to expect “strong action” against TikTok and other apps owned by Chinese companies. 

TikTok, which recently hired former Disney executive Kevin Mayer to run its U.S. operations, says it doesn’t share data with the Chinese government. To stave off a U.S. ban, the company is banking on its roster of Washington insiders, including a lobbyist who has close ties with both Trump and Pompeo and former aides to Democratic leaders.

TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, didn’t start lobbying until the second half of 2019, spending $270,000. In the first three months of 2020 alone, the company spent $300,000 to dispatch 27 lobbyists from four different K Street firms. 

The most crucial lobbyist for TikTok’s future might be David Urban, a key player in Trump’s 2016 win in Pennsylvania and an adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign. Hired by TikTok in January, Urban’s firm American Continental Group has seen its revenue explode to new highs in the Trump era as companies attempt to leverage Urban’s connection to the president.

Urban was a West Point classmate of Pompeo and reportedly recommended the former Kansas congressman for Trump’s cabinet. The New York Times reported that the State Department froze congressional holds on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after Urban requested a meeting between Pompeo and the chief executive at defense contractor Raytheon. The meeting took place several weeks after the State Department had already enacted the freeze, which allowed Raytheon to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to the two nations.

TikTok’s roster also includes influencers with close ties to top Democrats in Congress. TikTok recently restructured its internal lobbying team by adding several well-connected lobbyists, CNBC reported. Among the company’s new hires is Michael Hacker, former senior adviser to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Michael Bloom, a former senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). That’s after TikTok hired Michael Beckerman, former CEO of the Internet Association lobbying group, earlier this year. 

Former House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), a partner at K&L Gates, also lobbies for TikTok. 

While Republicans such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are the most vocal critics of TikTok in Congress, some top Democrats are also wary of the widely popular app. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Transportation Security Administration workers to stop using the app earlier this year. 

The federal government has put pressure on TikTok before. The Federal Trade Commission fined the app maker $5.7 million early last year for illegally collecting information about users under the age of 13. The fine was a record penalty under child privacy laws but made up only a fraction of the company’s revenue. 

While Pompeo has made statements on TikTok’s possible national security risk, Trump is considering banning the app to punish China for the coronavirus pandemic, which experts believe originated in China’s Hubei province. The U.S. has become the epicenter of the outbreak, with COVID-19 infecting over 3 million Americans and killing more than 135,000

Former American TikTok employees told the Washington Post last year that its Chinese parent company had the final say on what content was censored. TikTok has attempted to distance itself from China, noting that ByteDance offers a separate app that adheres to the country’s strict censorship standards for its Chinese users. TikTok recently left the Hong Kong market after Beijing imposed a controversial national security law that will force internet companies to comply with government data requests and censorship.

Correction 7/14/19: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a Raytheon executive met with Pompeo before the State Department froze a congressional hold on arms sales to two nations. The meeting took place several weeks after the freeze.

This article originally appeared on OpenSecrets.org, The Center for Responsive Politics and is republished with permission under Creative Commons License 3.0.