TikTok Australia: We Really, Really Promise We’ve Got Nothing to Do with China

TikTok Australia: We Really, Really Promise We’ve Got Nothing to Do with China
Supplied: APH

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:

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.