TikTok Workers Feel ‘Anxiety,’ ‘Anger,’ And ‘Rage,’ Amid Trump Crackdown

Bobby Allyn, NPR

Patrick Ryan, technical manager at TikTok, is suing the Trump administration over the president's executive order aimed at banning business transactions between Americans and TikTok's parent company ByteDance.

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.

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