NBC News Cites TikTok-Funded Expert To Slam 'Authoritarian' TikTok Ban

Center for Democracy and Technology took more than $100,000 from Chinese-owned app in 2022

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
March 19, 2024

NBC News is warning its readers that a U.S. ban on TikTok could "embolden authoritarian censorship"—and using a think tank that has taken more than $100,000 from the Chinese-owned app to do so.

In a Sunday report titled, "A TikTok Ban Could Embolden Authoritarian Censorship, Experts Warn," NBC reporter Kevin Collier cites "critics" of a bipartisan bill that would ban TikTok in the United States unless its Chinese corporate owner, ByteDance, divests from the company. Included among those "critics" is Kate Ruane, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Free Expression Project. For Ruane, targeting the app would cede America's "moral authority" and give "license to authoritarian regimes around the world to do the same to U.S.-based platforms."

Missing from Ruane's analysis, however, is any disclosure of her employer's financial ties to TikTok. The Center for Democracy and Technology took between $100,000 and $500,000 from the Chinese-owned app in 2022, according to its website, making TikTok one of its largest donors that year. It also accepted between $50,000 and $100,000 from the app in 2021.

The revelation comes as TikTok scrambles to fend off the forced divestiture bill, which the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed last week. The app's public relations tactics have raised eyebrows, with TikTok prompting its users to enter their zip codes and call their congressmen as the bill advanced through the lower chamber. The blitz led to an influx of phone calls to congressional offices, including from teenagers who threatened to commit suicide if the app was banned.

In at least one case, a House member who voted against the bill did so after taking money from a TikTok lobbyist. That member, California Democratic congressman Robert Garcia, received $500 from Michael Bloom, TikTok's director of government relations.

Neither NBC nor the Center for Democracy and Technology responded to requests for comment.

The think tank, which is based in Washington, D.C., bills itself as the "leading nonpartisan, nonprofit organization fighting to advance civil rights and civil liberties in the digital age." It has emerged as one of the TikTok bill's top opponents, with the center signing on to a March 6 letter calling on Congress to oppose the legislation.

"H.R. 7521 is censorship—plain and simple," the letter states. "Passing this legislation would trample on the constitutional right to freedom of speech of millions of people in the United States."

While another expert cited in the NBC piece, former Obama administration official Chris Painter, suggests U.S. lawmakers are targeting TikTok because they don't "like what was being said" on the app, the bill's sponsors—Reps. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D., Ill.)—introduced the legislation to address national security concerns.

The app is owned by China-based company ByteDance, meaning the Chinese Communist Party has "supreme access" to the popular social media site and its data, according to a former ByteDance executive.

During a March 2023 congressional hearing, meanwhile, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew refused to say what would happen if the Chinese government forced the company to turn over user data. A Chinese national security law enacted in 2017 requires domestic companies to comply with the government's intelligence services when asked and prohibits them from disclosing the work.

On its website, the Center for Democracy and Technology says its "financial supporters have no influence or control over CDT's projects or priorities, including the content of educational programs, research, written reports, or other work product."

Still, the think tank's gift acceptance policy says donors can send financial gifts with "restricted purposes." In those cases, the center will "respect the intent of the donor," so long as the "restrictions" are consistent with its "mission and priorities."

In addition to TikTok, the Center for Democracy and Technology has accepted six-figure contributions from other tech giants such as Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and Google.