The owner of TikTok, Chinese information technology company ByteDance, has spent millions of dollars since 2020 on U.S. lobbying services, even as U.S. officials have publicly branded TikTok, which is a U.S. registered company, a national security threat for its access to significant amounts of U.S. users’ personal information.
ByteDance was among the biggest corporate spenders on federal lobbying services in 2022, after Amazon, Facebook owner Meta, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, according to Open Secrets. The company’s ability to legally influence policymakers in Washington demonstrates a significant shortcoming in U.S. law that authoritarian countries have exploited for decades. The United States must tighten restrictions on foreign lobbying to prevent authoritarian regimes from influencing what happens in the United States without full disclosure.
Advocacy before federal officials is a longstanding right protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is also legal for U.S. citizens to act as representatives for foreign governments, but they must publicly report their lobbying activities to the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. But there are some serious flaws in reporting transparency that Congress needs to remedy.
For example, FARA doesn’t include privately owned companies in its definition of foreign principals so long as they are conducting commercial activities – and authoritarian regimes like China and Russia use that to their advantage. By making the distinction between commercial and political goals intentionally obscure, authoritarian countries can use state-owned enterprises to push for strategic geopolitical goals.
In a recent case, a company called Nord Stream 2 AG, wholly owned by Russian state-owned monopoly Gazprom, hired U.S. lobbyists to advocate against sanctions for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that sought to deliver gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Lobbyists in this case were legally working to further one of President Vladimir Putin’s main political goals. However, the Gazprom case is just one example. The practice is a common tactic used by Russian oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska.
As with Nord Stream AG 2, it’s problematic for lobbyists for these so-called private entities to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, or LDA, which requires much less transparency than FARA. The distinction is subtle, but the LDA mandates the registration of lobbyists acting on behalf of a commercial entity for business purposes, while FARA requires registration for lobbyists working on behalf of a foreign government for political purposes.
In addition, under the LDA, lobbyists are only required to register if they’ve had more than one contact with U.S. government officials, if the lobbying agreement occupies 20% or more of their time in a quarter, and if the lobbying firm received a minimum of $3,000 in compensation.
Furthermore, authoritarian countries employ former members of the U.S. government as part of their tactics. For example, recent reports indicate that Hikvision, a surveillance company of the People’s Republic of China used to track Uyghurs, hired former U.S. government representatives to lobby against possible sanctions.
To address these legal gaps, policymakers should strengthen the LDA’s ability to monitor lobbying activity for private entities. This would lessen LDA’s appeal as an alternative to FARA while increasing truth and transparency.
At registration, the business should have to clarify if it’s an affiliate of a foreign company. Amending the LDA to disclose connections to international companies will flag attempts by authoritarian governments to avoid registration under FARA, strengthening reporting compliance and allowing policymakers to realize the possibility of foreign influence.
Secondly, the LDA should tighten registration requirements to cover all lobbying contacts and lower the thresholds to 10% of a lobbyist’s time and any total payment in any given quarter.
Third, lobbying firms should undergo an annual or semiannual audit to ensure that they are complying with the LDA reporting standards.
With these measures, the United States can severely deter the influence of authoritarian regimes in this country. Authoritarian countries already have a comprehensive network to drive influence in their favor. The United States shouldn’t leave itself open for exploitation.