TikTok tries to sell ‘Project Texas’ as it fights for survival in the U.S.

NBC News 01.28.2023 3 min read
TikTok tries to sell ‘Project Texas’ as it fights for survival in the U.S.

TikTok is going on the offensive in Washington, D.C., in a stepped-up effort to counter calls to ban the app in the U.S. over its Chinese ownership.

Senior executives at the popular video app and their lobbyists have been briefing members of Congress, academic researchers, think tank writers and others about a $1.5 billion effort that they call Project Texas, laying out details of how TikTok believes it can address the concerns of people who see it as a security threat, according to people who said they had been briefed and media reports about the lobbying.

Some of the details appeared Thursday on the security blog Lawfare, where two people provided a rundown of what they said they heard at one TikTok briefing last week.

Matt Perault, one of the co-authors of the blog post and the director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that much of the political debate around TikTok has been rooted in guesswork, and that the briefing was a chance to hear the company put forward specifics.

“The debate should be grounded in the realities of the planned operations rather than in speculation about what those plans may be,” Perault said in a phone interview.

He said his center has received funding from TikTok, but that he had no view on whether TikTok’s assurances were satisfactory. He said he saw his role in the briefing as a chance to hear details that he and others could pass along to the public. Some details were also reported by The New York Times on Thursday and earlier this month by The Wall Street Journal.

TikTok said Thursday it plans to continue briefing members of Congress about the details of its plans.

“Our team in D.C. is focused on educating lawmakers about our company and our service, which is loved by millions of Americans and is creating economic opportunities for small businesses and individual creators,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement.

TikTok is facing the most serious threat to its U.S. operations since 2020, when then-President Donald Trump tried to ban the app and lost in court. Some governors have banned TikTok on state computer networks, including at public universities; Congress last month voted to ban TikTok from federal government devices; and this week Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., resurrected the idea of a complete nationwide ban.

It’s all part of a strategy by China hawks and other TikTok critics to gradually fence in TikTok and make it difficult or impossible for people to access the app in the U.S.

And TikTok’s troubles have only deepened recently after reports about its employees surveilling journalists at Forbes and about its China-based employees accessing U.S. user data.

It’s not clear whether TikTok’s latest effort in Washington will make a difference, but it represents a change in strategy for TikTok as it continues multiyear negotiations with the Biden administration on a potential security agreement to allay security concerns.

“We have shifted our approach,” Erich Andersen, the general counsel of ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, told the Times.

Some of TikTok’s critics say they resent how easily the company has grown its lobbying presence in Washington by paying for top firms.

“China’s strategy is: Seduce with money and reinforce with retaliation and intimidation,” said Keith Krach, a former under secretary of state in the Trump administration and former CEO of tech company DocuSign.

A key partner of TikTok is the U.S. computing giant Oracle, which has its headquarters in Austin, Texas, where TikTok may choose to house the data of its U.S. users. The code name “Project Texas” became public last year. Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Among the details disclosed by TikTok is that it will create a board of directors to oversee a new subsidiary focused on the security of U.S. data, with TikTok nominating the directors and U.S. government officials reviewing the names, according to the Lawfare blog post.