Kendall Hill was in a meeting at Pegasus Park as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of Congress on March 23. As Chew spoke to U.S. officials, Hill received a vague message from a friend.
“You’re blowing up right now,” read the message to the president, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Project Texas.
Project Texas, a nonprofit focused on projects such as helping citizens gain access to voting, is now looking to distance itself from the controversial social media app TikTok that Texas and other states banned from government-owned computers and cellphones over security concerns.
Hill said the nonprofit has a volunteer base of 500 people in Texas and, until November 2022, operated with a budget of less than $5,000.
The Chinese-owned company has launched a $1.5 billion initiative under the same name. TikTok’s Project Texas was created in an effort to restore American trust in TikTok’s operations.
TikTok’s initiative got underway in March 2021. The nonprofit also launched in March 2021 and was granted a trademark for the Project Texas title in July 2022. TikTok’s initiative has received extensive coverage in Buzzfeed, Bloomberg, NPR and other media outlets. The Project Texas name also is prominent on TikTok’s U.S. website.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the company plans to eventually do away with the name.
Oberwetter said its use of Project Texas isn’t intended to identify a product, service or team, but rather a framework for how it plans to safeguard U.S. national security interests and protect user data. She said the name will be retired once that’s achieved.
Until then, Hill worries that TikTok is inadvertently damaging the nonprofit’s reputation. With 150 million American users, the social media app carries considerable website search clout.
“Right now, if you Google ‘Project Texas,’ the entire search results are filled with TikTok. We’re at the bottom of the results now,” Hill said. “Now, we’re being associated with them. We’ve gotten calls from people who think we’re with TikTok. We just want them to stop using our name.”
In response, Hill and Project Texas sent a letter to TikTok in hopes of getting the popular app to drop the name. Though a lawsuit has not been filed, it said TikTok violated fair use laws.
TikTok’s “failure to conduct a trademark search prior to using ‘Project Texas’ — or worse yet, conscious disregard” of the nonprofit’s trademark effectively eliminates a fair use defense, the letter stated. The letter, a draft for a possible lawsuit, also demands that TikTok change its initiative’s name and pay an unspecified amount in damages to the nonprofit.
Though Project Texas drafted a lawsuit, Hill said the nonprofit will most likely not see TikTok in court.
“We think our efforts can be best spent going toward the community. A trial is stressful, something that we may not be able to handle and would take away resources that are important to communities that urgently need them,” Hill said.
Instead, the nonprofit will look to reclaim its name through a social media campaign on Instagram and Facebook that spells out how its work can be supported through a GoFundMe site, Hill said.
“We’re buried under TikTok right now and it’s made it harder to raise funds. So we’re really just asking and praying for people to support us and our mission, and this is a start,” Hill said.
Hill said the nonprofit doesn’t plan on changing its name.
“We’ve chosen to remain Project Texas out of strength, prayer and hoping that we will prevail, which we know we will,” he said.