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TikTok controversy explained: Could the app really be banned?

In the age of surveillance capitalism, teenage social media influencers and online celebrities you’ve never heard of have unwittingly found themselves in the middle of geopolitical battles between world powers.

That’s right, we’re talking about TikTok.

The hugely popular video sharing app has come under increasing scrutiny amid growing suggestions the Australian government could move to block it due to concerns over intense data harvesting of users and political interference.

Pictured are two girls starring in TikTok videos.
TikTok is hugely popular among teens and young adults. Source: TikTok/YouTube

So what’s all the fuss about?

A Herald Sun report last week quoted an unnamed federal MP who wanted to see TikTok banned in Australia for “hoovering” up data that’s stored on servers accessible to the Chinese Communist Party.

Plans are reportedly underway to haul TikTok representatives in Australia before the Foreign Interference through Social Media senate inquiry.

It comes as India – where TikTok is hugely popular – banned the Chinese social media app following rising tensions between the two nations following border skirmishes which killed more than 20 Indian soldiers.

Meanwhile the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters last week the US was also “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps.

The reports prompted outcry from a number of prominent users on the app while Aussie users flooded the comments sections on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s social media accounts urging him not to ban the app.

While other Chinese apps such as WeChat have been popular among the Chinese diaspora in Australia, it has been the mainstream success of TikTok – with more than 1.6 million Australian users – which has brought these issues to the fore for Australian politicians.

“TikTok is the first big example of a second generation social media company in China and it is more adroit in its international strategy,” says Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan.

Does TikTok collect data on users?

Like all your favourite social media apps, Chinese owned TikTok collects huge amounts of information stored on your device.

But TikTok has been accused of collecting more than the likes of Facebook or Google, as it reportedly collects biometric information of users including facial features, how the phone is held and as well location data, browser activity and contacts.

“In many ways they are very similar, they all suck up a lot of data on their users which is integral to their business model. The key difference between Western and Chinese social media apps is they just fall under a different jurisdiction,” Mr Ryan told Yahoo News Australia.

Pictured is a TikTok app icon on a smartphone.
There is about 1.6 million Aussie TikTok users. Source: Getty

Some of the concern centres around the fact that a law in China compels companies to hand over data to the Chinese Communist Party when asked.

“Any company can be forced to take part in intelligence gathering work. And if they do, they are legally not allowed to talk about it,” Mr Ryan explained.

His colleague, ASPI analyst Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, is among those to raise concerns about the level of data TikTok hoovers up on users.

“TikTok mines private data on a level that Facebook would only wish it dares to,” she posted on Twitter this week.

“It's common in China that social media companies collect biometric data that is later used by the government for policing. It's also a really bad idea to let TikTok have young people's passwords when they're future politicians and scientists that Beijing may choose to target.”

In March, a pair of iOS developers found TikTok was stealing information from users’ clipboards on their iPhone (used to transfer data between apps) which included passwords and sensitive information.

‘China has a file on you’

Tech journalist Ben Thompson, whose Stratechery newsletter is widely followed by Silicon Valley elites, says TikTok finds itself at the centre of two debates: One about humans and the Internet, and the other about China and its authoritarian ideology.

“Needless to say, China is collecting data on basically everyone and they can and will use it against you, so that is a concern,” he said on his podcast last week.

“Believe me, China has a file on you. They certainly do on me, I know that for sure.”

He sees censorship of anti-China opinions and propaganda on the platform as arguably a more worrying issue than user surveillance. For example, if you searched for the Hong Kong protests while using the app, you were sure to come up empty handed.

While the company claims that data on foreign users is stored on servers outside China, the algorithms that underpin the app are undeniably under Chinese control.

“This cannot be overstated,” Mr Thompson said.

“Even if TikTok were able to prove to everyone that the data is not in China, the algorithms are from China ... They get to basically decide what millions of people see or don’t see.

“The Hong Kong one is a great example. You could not find a single video on TikTok which was supportive of the protests.”

Could Australia really ban TikTok?

While he doesn’t think it’s likely, Mr Ryan says “it is conceivable” that Australia eventually looks to ban the app if it can’t mitigate against the perceived risk it poses.

“I think in terms of policy, it needs to be an option on the table,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“I do think it should be a last resort.”

Pictured are two French internet influencers creating a video for TikTok.
French internet influencers creating content on the video platform. Source: Getty

Reported plans to haul Australian TikTok executives in front of a parliamentary committee would be more than just a chance for politicians to grandstand, Mr Ryan said.

“I think the main thing that would ultimately come out of that process is that it’s an opportunity to educate the Australian citizens about what’s at stake.

“So it’s not just a sudden decision that is made.”

One potentially acceptable result, he said, could see TikTok completely spun off from ByteDance and made to operate outside the auspices of the Chinese government.

TikTok urges Australian MPs to stop using app as ‘political football’

This week, a number of MPs received a letter from the head of TikTok Australia, claiming the company was simply “caught in the middle” of rising tensions between China and Australia.

The letter from the company’s Australian general manager, Lee Hunter, said TikTok is “independent, and not aligned with any government, political party or ideology”, and user data is kept secure.

“The truth is, with tensions rising between some countries, TikTok has unfortunately been caught in the middle and is being used by some as a political football. I assure you – we’re a social media platform for sharing videos – that’s all.”

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