TikTok tells Australian Senate committee it doesn't want to be a 'political football'

Submission to the Foreign Interference Through Social Media inquiry says it wants to give peace of mind by providing 'even more transparency and accountability'.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

In a submission to the Senate Select Committee and its inquiry into Foreign Interference Through Social Media, controversial video-sharing app TikTok has taken the opportunity to address what it has labelled misinformation in regards to itself.

TikTok, owned by China's ByteDance Ltd, is currently offered in "all major markets" except China, where the company offers a different short-form video app called Douyin, and Hong Kong, following the introduction of its new security law.

It is currently banned in India and was previously on the US' chopping block when President Donald Trump issued executive orders to ban the app. TikTok received approval to operate in the US, however, when the app's US footprint was sold to Oracle and Walmart.

Read more: What TikTok's big deal means for cloud, e-commerce: TikTok Global created with Oracle, Walmart owning 20%

The app was launched in May 2017 and its official launch in Australia occurred in May 2019.

TikTok said the personal data it collects from Australian users is stored on servers located in the United States and Singapore.

"We have strict controls around security and data access. As noted in our transparency reports, TikTok has never shared Australian user data with the Chinese government, nor censored Australian content at its request," it wrote [PDF].

"We apply HTTPS encryption to user data transmitted to our data centres and we also apply key encryption to the most sensitive personal data elements. User data is only accessible by employees within the scope of their jobs and subject to internal policies and controls."

The company said any legal requests from the Chinese government relating to Australian TikTok user data would need to go through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process.

"The Chinese government or law enforcement would need to send the evidence disclosure request through the relevant MLAT process."

If the data was stored in the United States, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) would be the appropriate body to consider the MLAT request.

"If the US DoJ approved the evidence request, the US DoJ would send the request on to us at TikTok. If the request from the US DoJ complied with our processes and legal requirements, we would provide the user data information to the US DoJ, who would in turn pass the data on to the Chinese government or law enforcement," it said.

"To date, we have not received any MLAT requests in respect of Australian user data, nor have we received requests to censor Australian content from, the Chinese government."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in August said that he had a "good look" at TikTok and there was no evidence to suggest the misuse of any person's data.

"We have had a look, a good look at this, and there is no evidence for us to suggest, having done that, that there is any misuse of any people's data that has occurred, at least from an Australian perspective, in relation to these applications," he told the Aspen Security Forum.

"You know, there's plenty of things that are on TikTok which are embarrassing enough in public. So that's sort of a social media device."

Morrison said the same issues are present with other social media companies, such as Facebook.

"Enormous amounts of information is being provided that goes back into systems. Now, it is true that with applications like TikTok, those data, that data, that information can be accessed at a sovereign state level. That is not the case in relation to the applications that are coming out of the United States. But I think people should understand and there's a sort of a buyer beware process," the prime minister added.

"There's nothing at this point that would suggest to us that security interests have been compromised or Australian citizens have been compromised because of what's happening with those applications."

TikTok said it understands that with "[its] success comes responsibility and accountability".

"The entire industry has received scrutiny, and rightly so. Yet, we have received even more scrutiny due to the company's origins," it said.

"Whilst we don't want TikTok to be a political football, we accept this scrutiny and embrace the challenge of giving peace of mind by providing even more transparency and accountability."

See also: Countering foreign interference and social media misinformation in Australia

In its submission, TikTok outlined the steps it has taken in relation to COVID-19, such as removing content containing medical misinformation and also content that included false information that was "likely to stoke panic and consequently result in real world harm".

The company added that it understood it has a responsibility to protect users from misleading information, educate on why it is inappropriate to post and spread misinformation, as well as encourage users to think twice about the information provided in any given post.  

TikTok said it has also limited the distribution of conspiratorial content that may allege COVID-19 was intentionally developed by a person, group, or institution for nefarious purposes, and also removed content that suggests a certain race, ethnicity, gender, or any member of a protected group is more susceptible to have and/or spread coronavirus.

"In light of the pandemic and the serious risk it poses to public health, we are erring on the side of caution when reviewing reports related to misinformation that could cause harm to our community or to the larger public. This may lead to the removal of some borderline content," it wrote.

TikTok said it is also continuing to invest in efforts to actively identify misinformation and to prevent inauthentic behaviour. It boasts a TikTok Transparency and Accountability Centre in Los Angeles, with another being built in Washington DC.

The app's community guidelines also state that TikTok is not the place to post, share, or promote: Harmful or dangerous content, graphic or shocking content, discrimination or hate speech, nudity or sexual activity, child safety infringement, harassment or cyberbullying, intellectual property infringements, or impersonation, spam, scams, or other misleading content.

"We continue to consult with a wide range of industry experts, academics and civil society organisations to seek guidance on improving our policies," it said.

"We welcome collaboration with Australian industry players and regulators. This includes working with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), towards the development of a draft industry code of conduct on misinformation, which is due for release later this year."

TikTok is due to appear before the committee on Friday. Labor previously said it wanted to ask TikTok how it approaches Australian privacy laws.


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