Borrowed time: How TikTok’s Australian future will be determined

Booming social media app TikTok has slammed suggestions it should be banned in Australia or investigated under foreign interference laws, criticising “unnamed sources” calling for the platform to come under greater parliamentary scrutiny.

TikTok, a video app owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, has some 1.6 million Australians among more than 800 million global users.

It has faced questions over alleged data harvesting and links to the Chinese government.

The app censored videos discussing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as content relating to Tibetan independence and pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong.

A Herald Sun report on Monday quoted an unnamed “federal MP” who wanted to see TikTok banned in Australia, and its local representatives questioned before a Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media.

In a statement to The New Daily, TikTok Australia’s general manager Lee Hunter slammed the calls.

TikTok has more than 800 million global users

“TikTok does not share information of our users in Australia with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government, and would not do so if asked,” Mr Hunter said.

He said the app was “building next-generation security programs”, adding data was stored on servers in Singapore.

Labor senator Jenny McAllister, chair of the social media inquiry, defended the investigation of TikTok.

“When we have national security and tech experts raising concerns about TikTok, we have to take those concerns seriously,” she told The New Daily.

“There have been credible reports that TikTok takes more data than its users would expect, and moderates content for reasons that its users may not be comfortable with.”

Labor senator Jenny McAllister

Politicians in the United States have called for TikTok to be investigated on privacy and national security grounds, while last week, India’s government banned 59 Chinese-produced apps including TikTok.

It has also come under repeated criticism for allegedly harvesting data from users’ phones.

Senator McAllister said she hoped TikTok would participate in future hearings of the Senate inquiry, due to report in 2022.

“Social media platforms are a bit of a black box for the average user. All platforms should be more transparent about the way in which they use data and promote content,” she said.

“I think Australians would expect that TikTok and other platforms will appear before the Senate committee to answer questions – both about their own policies and the best way to secure a healthy social media environment.”

Mr Hunter didn’t answer whether he would appear before a committee, but said: “we always welcome the opportunity to meet with policymakers to talk about TikTok”.

Only a handful of Australian politicians – including federal member for Bowman, Andrew Laming and Lilley MP Anika Wells – use TikTok regularly.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had been a regular poster until May.

Perhaps AusPol’s current most enthusiastic TikTok-er is Mark Parton, Member for Brindabella in the Australian Capital Territory’s parliament.

The Liberal politician – last week reprimanded for posting a TikTok video shot inside parliament – said it was important for MPs to try to reach out to younger people.

He suggested fears about foreign interference through the app may be “blown out of proportion”.

“If the federal government makes the call, I would say they’ve made the right call, but I’ve assessed the reports as they’ve come in and most of the other social platforms have the ability to farm that information from you already,” Parton told The New Daily.

“The only thing that appears to be different for TikTok is that it’s from China, which isn’t enough for me to say ‘don’t go there’.”

TikTok is one of the fastest growing apps in the world

In a statement, Attorney-General Christian Porter told The New Daily the government was working to “increase resilience to foreign interference in at-risk sectors, including disinformation through social media.”

He added that the Home Affairs department had recently warned “hostile foreign actors actively use social media to promote narratives and spread disinformation”.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said “all social media companies, including TikTok, have a responsibility to be transparent” with users about their data.

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