10.23am | July 09, 2020

SUBJECTS: TikTok; foreign interference through social media.
JENNY MCALLISTER, CHAIR, SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE INTO FOREIGN INTERFERENCE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA: Australia has a terrific democracy. It’s very successful, and the success of our democracy is dependent on the ability to have strong and open debate and clear communication with one another.
Social media has obviously supported that objective. Many Australians use social media to debate political ideas and communicate with one another. But that openness and that debate also presents some risks, and increasingly we know there are malign actors who seek to shape the information environment so that they can influence Australian politics.
Labor’s been concerned about this for some time, and at the end of last year we set up a committee inquiry to look at these questions, to understand the nature and the scope of the problem, and to propose solutions. Since the 2016 election, there’s been quite a lot of focus on the big platforms that we all know and understand, like Twitter and Facebook, and those platforms have been exposed to very significant scrutiny overseas and here in terms of their practices and behaviours.
There’s no reason that that same scrutiny should not be applied to emerging platforms. Today we’re seeing a number of questions have been raised about TikTok. Now TikTok has been downloaded by 1.6 million Australians, and two-thirds of them are under the age of 25. Now, it’s definitely a fun platform, and it may seem like a stretch that a platform that’s best known for lip-synching and dancing could have significant national security implications. But experts are telling us that there are questions for TikTok to answer about the way that it uses the data that is provided to it by its users, and also about the way that it promotes content to people who are on that platform.
This is an issue that Labor has been raising. My colleague Tim Watts went into the Parliament last year and raised it. Overseas, prominent Democrats and Republicans have been raising it, and calling for investigations into TikTok. And yet it is still unclear who in the Morrison Government is responsible for this issue.
It is not too much to ask that if government has information about risks that are present to our citizens when they go on these platforms that they communicate them. And yet it is very unclear which part of government is responsible for this; which part of the Australian Government is responsible for protecting Australian citizens.
JOURNALIST: Do you have legitimate security concerns about the TikTok app?
MCALLISTER: The issues that have been publicly raised go to two questions. One, the way that TikTok accesses your information when you download the app, and the way that it protects that information once it’s been accessed. And the second issue is what kind of content is being promoted on that platform.
Last year, it emerged that TikTok appeared to have guidelines that saw them censor material about Tiananmen Square, saw them censor material about the Hong Kong protests. That kind of censorship is not consistent with Australian values. At minimum, we need to understand what guidelines TikTok are applying to the content that they’re promoting on their platform, and whether they’re willing to be transparent about those guidelines with Australian citizens.
JOURNALIST: We’ve seen other countries, like India I believe, already ban the app. Is that a move we should be taking here in Australia?
MCALLISTER: The Committee’s been set up to have a look at the scope of the problem and explore solutions. What you want are solutions that respond to specific problems. We need to understand what actual challenges we might be seeking to resolve in terms of TikTok or any of the other platforms. At this stage, it’s too early to start talking about solutions.
But I return to my earlier point: the Government really needs to make clear which part of government is responsible for this, which minister is responsible for this. At the moment we don’t know, and what Australians are looking for is clear leadership from the Government on this emerging problem.
JOURNALIST: Would you like to see TikTok representatives put before a Senate inquiry into this issue?
MCALLISTER: I think Australians would all like to see all of the major platforms come before the Committee. We’ll certainly be inviting TikTok to appear and I hope that they would do so.
JOURNALIST: What advice would you have for young Australians who are currently using the TikTok app?
MCALLISTER: People need to be very cautious about the data that they’re providing online, for the TikTok app or anything else. I’d say to young Australians: have a close look at the terms and conditions. Make a decision about whether or not you really want to provide your personal information to any app that you’re signing up for.
JOURNALIST: Is it concerning that we’ve seen other countries around the world ban this app, and we’re yet to take substantial action against it?
MCALLISTER: The Government really needs to define how it’s going to approach this problem. We have very little communication from the Government to Australian citizens about social media; very little advice to Australians about what kinds risks they might be facing and how to best manage those risks.
It is time for the Government to start taking this problem seriously. Labor has been raising it; the Government seems to have discovered it in the last couple of weeks. It’s time for them to make clear what action they intend to pursue.
JOURNALIST: And specifically, what questions would you put to the representatives of TikTok relating to the security issue?
MCALLISTER: I’d like to hear from all of the platforms: what kinds of privacy protections are there for individuals when they provide information to your app, and how can you go about choosing which content gets promoted or which content gets deprioritised. At the moment these systems are a black box for consumers. We don’t know on what basis material gets pushed up or pushed down. Platforms need to be much clearer with the public about their policies and guidelines in relation to promoting content on their platforms.
JOURNALIST: The Committee’s expecting to deliver their findings in 2022. What should users do over the next two years to protect themselves in the interim?
MCALLISTER: The primary responsibility for protecting Australian citizens lies with the Australian Government. The Government needs to make clear which minister is responsible for this, they need to make clear which agencies are responsible for this, and they need to start making clear how it is that they intend to communicate to Australian citizens about any of the risks or challenges that engaging with social media present to them.