It’s been a funny couple of months for TikTok. For most of this year, the platform’s parent company, ByteDance, has come under scrutiny for its links to China. This lead to a ‘sale’ of the company’s US operations. And it’s that fear of Chinese influence that remains top of mind for Australia’s political leaders.
On Friday, representatives from TikTok Australia and TikTok in the U.S. appeared in front of the Senate Select Committee into Foreign Interference through Social Social Media.
While the Committee’s name is strictly about the idea of foreign influence, the committee itself has a wider remit including but not limited to misinformation, compliance with Australian laws and ways to mitigate any “risk posed to Australian democracy and values”.
And the senators who appeared on the committee really took advantage of that wide purview, asking questions about everything from whether humans are deciding what you see on the app's For You section to what qualifies as 'user data'.
Does TikTok Australia give data to China?
But the main flavour of the day was whether TikTok is under the thumb of the China? Is it giving Australian data to China? Is President Xi himself deciding what TikTok sounds trend? (OK, not the last one.)
The answer from TikTok Australia's general manager Lee Hunter was an emphatic 'no'.
The company restated the same line that it's been trotting out since Australian media covered fears that the company was data mining from its 1.6million Australian users: the company doesn't share information of the users with any foreign government, including China, and wouldn't do so if asked.
There's no evidence to doubt that claim. And, if anything, worrying about whether the Chinese Communist Party is going to demand TikTok Australia hands over data is missing the point.
After all, we live in a digital economy where data about us is constantly mined, sold, given and stored by many different companies and organisations that it doesn't matter who owns TikTok. If any foreign government wants our data, it can just buy it off a company legally!
But that's not what was discussed at the committee. Senators honed in on whether the CCP was controlling what videos were shown to users, if they were censoring political content in Australia, whether TikTok Australia would abide by different Chinese laws or legal articles.
But Hunter and the other TikTok representatives parried all these lines of inquiry by trying to make a distinction between TikTok Australia and any Chinese influence.
Outside of questions about China's influence, the Committee touched on a few different topics:
- Hunter claimed that TikTok Australia was not involved in the Federal Government's security reviews of TikTok, and only found out about the outcome through the media.
- TikTok moderators who deal with Australian users are primarily in the Philippines and the U.K. The company has prepared an 'Australian playbook' which guides moderators about Australian sensitivities including swear words and offensive terms.
- Senator Jim Molan slammed TikTok, calling them misleading because the company does in some circumstances provide information to some other countries about criminal investigations under a country's mutual assistance legal treaties.
- The company outlined how it dealt with the viral suicide video that circulated on its platform earlier this month. According to Hunter, more than 10,000 different versions of the video were uploaded to the platform, trying to avoid detection by TikTok's technologies that were deleting versions of the video.
And if this all wasn't enough, the Committee chair, Senator Jenny McAllister, asked the TikTok representatives if they would appear again in front of the committee as part of their on-going investigations. So, expect a round two later this year.