TikTok Workers Feel 'Anxiety,' 'Anger,' And 'Rage,' Amid Trump Crackdown

Aug 29, 2020
Originally published on August 29, 2020 9:47 pm

Patrick Ryan is sitting on a couch in the garage of his house in California's San Mateo County. Dressed in aviator-style glasses and cowboy boots, he talks intensely about his job as a technical manager at TikTok —a job that politicians in Washington have put at risk.

This week, Ryan filed a lawsuit against President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, thereby becoming the public face of TikTok employees fed up with the administration's efforts to ban the video-sharing app because it is owned by a Chinese company.

"Sometimes it's anxiety. Sometimes it's anger. Sometimes it's disappointment. Sometimes it's rage. It's a mixture of things," Ryan said of the feelings he and his colleagues have had lately.

Indeed, it is an emotional experience when the president of the United States marshals the powers of the executive branch to squash your company's business, especially just as the company's growth is soaring.

TikTok, which gained popularity for showcasing short videos of dance challenges, lip-syncing and cooking tips, has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the U.S. and has emerged as one of the fastest-growing apps during the coronavirus pandemic. TikTok said it planned to hire 10,000 workers in the U.S. over the next three years.

But on Aug. 6, Trump signed an executive order outlawing "any transaction" between U.S. citizens and TikTok's Beijing-based owner, Bytedance. The order declares a national emergency over TikTok, citing national security concerns.

Ryan, 51, arrived at TikTok five months ago after nearly a decade at Google. In addition to being a technical manager, he's a lawyer. His lawsuit calls Trump's action unconstitutional, alleging due process and other violations. Ryan also writes in the suit that the president's official actions against the company have "defamed and disgraced" TikTok employees.

"It's going to be prohibited for our company and for anybody to transfer money to us or for us to pay any payments or transactions of any kind to any person, so we want to stop that," Ryan said. "We also want to make sure that we continue to get paid."

Ryan remembers the Friday night, in late July, when President Trump declared aboard Air Force One that he intended to ban TikTok. Fittingly enough, Ryan first found out about Trump's remarks from his two daughters, 15 and 13, who watched a video about the comments on TikTok.

Since then, TikTok has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the company seeking to block the Aug. 6 directive. Trump signed a separate order targeting TikTok requiring the company to sell its U.S. assets in 90 days.

Ryan, however, is forging his own path. He is raising money for the suit online. TikTok is not officially a part of his legal battle. That said, the company did not discourage his effort.

"I hear from employees all the time on a one-to-one basis in terms of what their concerns are and their fears, in many ways," Ryan said. "The questions are all very similar: What does this mean? Does this mean I'm going to lose my job?"

It could, according to Ryan. He points out that many TikTok employees are in the U.S. on work visas, which Trump's executive order may imperil.

Trump's crackdown could force another, less dire outcome: If ByteDance sells TikTok to a U.S. company to satisfy the administration, TikTok's 1,500 employees may have a new corporate owner. Perhaps even be Microsoft and Walmart, which have put in a joint bid to acquire TikTok.

That would solve the problems with TikTok the administration cites: Officials say having a Beijing owner leaves Americans' data susceptible to Chinese authorities, an accusation Ryan deems "absurd."

National security experts outside of the White House say under Chinese law, companies must comply with government requests from the authoritarian regime.

As of now, though, such requests remain theoretical, since Trump officials have not offered any proof that such data has ever been sought by Beijing.

Ryan, who oversees TikTok's servers, said he knows firsthand that the data of Americans stays in the U.S., primarily in Virginia, with a backup server in Singapore.

"I spend a lot of time making sure that network is safe. And understanding what is going on," he said. "We look very closely at the dataflows of the network, and I can say with extreme confidence that there is no shadow network."

Washington, according to Ryan, is unfairly singling out TikTok because its top executives are in China. He notes big American tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft make products that are banned in China, yet the companies have a significant presence in the country.

"Nobody is accusing the management in Apple China of controlling Apple USA," Ryan said. "So I don't know why that's the case here," he said.

In the midst of talks about TikTok's future, the company's U.S.-based top executive, Kevin Mayer, quit earlier this week.

Ryan said Mayer's surprise departure was a blow to the company, though he said it will not stop his quest to fight for TikTok employees.

"I certainly didn't take this case on because I was worried about Kevin Mayer," he said. "I took this case on because I'm worried about my colleagues around here who might be in a situation where they won't be able to find another job."

Even if an American company buys TikTok, Ryan said his legal challenge will continue. Employees, he said, remain worried about those on worker-visas losing their sponsorship, in addition to fears over changes in pay, benefits and workplace conditions.

"A deal is not going to end this for me," Ryan said.

Editor's note: TikTok helps fund NPR-produced videos from Planet Money that appear on the social media platform.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a stressful time to be an employee at TikTok. The Trump administration is trying to force the app to sever ties with its Chinese owner. Its options are find a buyer or be banned in the U.S. NPR's Bobby Allyn spoke to one TikTok employee about what it's like to be working at the hit video-sharing app while it's facing an existential crisis.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Patrick Ryan is sitting on a couch in the garage of his house in California's San Mateo County. He's an intense, wiry guy wearing aviator-style glasses and cowboy boots. Scrolling through his laptop, he sees message after message from his colleagues at TikTok.

PATRICK RYAN: Sometimes, it's anxiety. Sometimes, it's anger. Sometimes, it's disappointment. Sometimes, it's rage, you know. It's a mixture of things, and it brings up all of these emotions.

ALLYN: Yes, it's an emotional experience when the president of the United States is trying to put your company out of business. Ryan is a technical manager at TikTok. He's also a lawyer. He dealt with his anger about Trump's action by suing the administration in federal court over Trump's August 6 executive order.

RYAN: It's going to be prohibited for our company and for anybody to transfer money to us or for us to make any payment to any transaction of any kind for any person. And so we want to stop that, but we also want to make sure that we can continue to get paid.

ALLYN: Ryan remembers the Friday night in late July when President Trump declared aboard Air Force One that he was going to ban TikTok. Fittingly enough, Ryan first found out about it from his two daughters, who are 15 and 13. They saw it on TikTok. Since then, TikTok has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the company, but Ryan is forging his own path. He's raising money for the suit online. TikTok isn't officially part of his legal battle, but the company did not discourage him.

RYAN: I hear from employees all the time on a one-to-one basis in terms of what their concerns are and their fears in many ways. The questions are all very similar about, you know, what does this mean? Does this really mean that I'm going to lose my job?

ALLYN: It could, but Trump's crackdown could also just mean TikTok's 1,500 hundred employees will soon get a new corporate owner, maybe even Microsoft and Walmart, which have put in a joint bid. That would solve the problems with the TikTok the administration cites. They say having a Beijing parent company leaves Americans' data susceptible to Chinese authorities. Experts say under Chinese law, companies must comply with government requests. But Ryan, who oversees TikTok's servers, says he knows firsthand that the data of Americans stays in the U.S.

RYAN: I spend a lot of time, you know, making sure that that network is safe and understanding what's going on. And one of the areas that I deal with are vulnerabilities and other areas. And so we look very closely at the data flows of the network. I can say with extreme confidence that there is no shadow network.

ALLYN: Ryan thinks TikTok is being unfairly singled out because its top executives are in China. He says while companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft make products that are banned in China, all of the companies have a significant presence there.

RYAN: Nobody's accusing the management in Apple China of controlling Apple USA, so I don't know why that's the case here.

ALLYN: In the midst of talks about TikTok's future, the company's U.S.-based top executive, Kevin Mayer, quit. Ryan says that was a blow to the company, but it won't stop his quest to fight for TikTok employees.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News. San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANITEK'S "NIGHTLIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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