Politics

Junk Explained: Why Are People Talking About Banning TikTok?

Some people aren't convinced our data is entirely safe

What is TikTok, the Vine competitor taking over in China.

It’s no secret that any sense of privacy we have on the internet is more or less a well-crafted illusion — I’m sure we’re all familiar with that unnerving feeling of being served a targeted Facebook ad for something we’d just been thinking about.

We’re aware that all apps collect data. At this point Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google probably know more about us than we know ourselves.

But TikTok is different in the sense that it’s owned by China — that’s making other countries nervous, as global tensions with China rise.

Last week The Herald Sun reported that TikTok’s Australian representatives have been called upon to answer questions at a senate inquiry which is looking into the risk of foreign interference in our democracy, using social media.

So what exactly are they worried about?

Who’s Worried About TikTok?

There are a stack of MPs and cyber-security experts who have voiced concerns over how secure our data is.

PM Scott Morrison told 2GB, “I think it’s right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risks they present”.

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie — who also chairs the parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, told the ABC he believes it poses a national security threat.

Nationals MP George Christensen has called for TikTok to be banned in Australia and told people to delete the app off their phones.

It has already been banned on devices issued by the Australian Defence Force.

But other pollies don’t seem that worried — Victorian Premier Dan Andrews is a frequent TikToker, and Liberal MP Andrew Laming recently treated us to a disturbing video of himself doing chin-ups to a Megan Thee Stallion song that raps about curved dick.

Imagine losing access to content like this? A travesty, it would be.

But it’s not just Australia having this conversation.

India banned TikTok (and other Chinese-owned apps) late last month after a border clash between the two countries left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

The US is also in discussions about banning it — their relationship with China is also on shaky ground, with Trump threatening to cut ties against a backdrop of trade disputes, coronavirus-related pot shots, and the US decision to sail Navy aircraft carriers into the contested South China Sea.

Days ago TikTok also announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong, after China passed a controversial new security law which gives Beijing the power to jail people for life for anti-state crimes (like the recent Hong Kong protests, for example).

Why Are People Concerned About TikTok Data?

TikTok is the first Chinese-owned app to make a serious splash in the Western market, with more than 1.6 million Aussie users and more than two billion worldwide.

The app is owned by a company called ByteDance, but there are concerns that people’s data could also be accessed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course, other apps like Facebook have been scrutinised for years over how it handles users’ sensitive information — Cambridge Analytica, anyone?

TikTok has repeatedly denied it shares any user data with Chinese authorities, but that hasn’t stopped the calls for TikTok to face a senate inquiry to answer some questions.

The Foreign Interference through Social Media senate inquiry is looking at how social media can be used by foreign powers to undermine Australia’s democracy and values.

Jenny McAllister is the chair of the inquiry, and told The Guardian there have been credible reports that TikTok “takes more data than its users would expect”.

“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.

Apart from that, there are also concerns that content on the app is moderated or censored based on Chinese sensitivities.

One high profile example of this involved a user named Feroza Aziz, who created a viral video condemning China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.

The minority group have been systematically detained and brainwashed in Chinese detention centres, and Feroza’s video on their plight was seen by 1.6 million people before being taken down because of “human moderation error“.

What Does TikTok Have To Say?

TikTok Australia’s general manager Lee Hunter has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that they share data with foreign governments.

“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. We place the highest importance on user privacy and integrity,” he told The Guardian.

“We always welcome the opportunity to meet with policy makers to talk about TikTok, including the steps we’re taking to make it an even safer and more creative place.”

He also emphasised that all TikTok data is stored on servers in Singapore, with limited access from overseas entities.