The federal government’s decision to ban TikTok from its work phones has swung the spotlight onto other social media services owned by China’s technology giants and exposed a divide between MPs jumping to delete their accounts on the popular video app and those staying on.
Government Services Minister Bill Shorten deleted his account, which had about 12,000 followers, while Melbourne backbencher Julian Hill, who is parliament’s most popular politician on TikTok, with 146,000 followers, will keep his.
Tuesday's move has not halted the thawing of relations between China and Australia, with reports emerging that Beijing had issued an “in principle” invitation for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to visit China later this year.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced the ban on TikTok on government devices to deal with “significant security and privacy risks” from the app triggered by its extensive data collection and exposure to China’s national security laws, which can compel companies to aid the Communist Party.
“The direction will come into effect as soon as practicable,” said Dreyfus, adding there will only be limited exceptions where the government needs to use TikTok. That will have to happen on dedicated phones, stored securely and with accounts tied to generic government emails, in a marker of how concerned security agencies are about the app’s potential risks.
So far, there have been no publicly documented serious security breaches in Australia and TikTok has fiercely denied users have any reason to be concerned, chalking up the criticism to geopolitics.
“We are also disappointed that TikTok, and the millions of Australians who use it, were left to learn of this decision through the media, despite our repeated offers to engage with government constructively about this policy,” said TikTok Australia's general manager Lee Hunter.
“Again, we stress that there is no evidence to suggest that TikTok is in any way a security risk to Australians and we should not be treated differently to other social media platforms.”
Opposition cybersecurity spokesman James Paterson, who has long campaigned for the government to crack down on TikTok, said the ban, which and revealed was coming last month, was welcome but narrow.
“They are not the only popular app in Australia owned by a parent company in China beholden to the Chinese Communist Party,” said Paterson. “WeChat, owned by Tencent, falls into the same category. The government must explain if the ban also applies to WeChat, and if not, why not.”
A spokesman for Tencent, which owns WeChat, declined to comment.
Both the Liberal and Labor parties have used WeChat during election campaigns to court votes in the Chinese-Australian community.
The Department of Home Affairs recently completed its review of security risks posed by social media apps and the government is considering its recommendations, which have not been made public.
Greens digital rights spokesman David Shoebridge slammed the ban as a “publicity stunt”, saying: “The data security issues for TikTok are mirrored in pretty much every other social media platform; the difference is that our government is not running a fear campaign against the governments that host those platforms.”
The government’s move sent politicians scrambling to clarify their use of the app. Hill, a Melbourne Labor MP whose impassioned speeches are popular on the platform, said he would stay on the app using a personal device to “meet Australians where they are”.
“The advice I’ve received is that I’m fully compliant with the new rules,” Hill said.
A spokeswoman for Shorten, a former Labor leader, said that “it was the right time and right thing to do” to delete his account, while Dreyfus said he had never had TikTok on his phone. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he would delete his TikTok account as well as ban the app on state government devices.
Newly elected NSW Premier Chris Minns batted away questions about a state government ban and told journalists he would be taking briefings on the subject on Tuesday.
Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, speaking at an event in Sydney, said the world would increasingly be polarised between technology platforms controlled by democracies such as the United States and authoritarian states such as China.
“I don’t want to be using Chinese operating systems to do my communications,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”
Tai Wei Lim, a senior research fellow at Singapore's East Asian Institute, said Australia’s decision to follow the United States and other western partners showed the world had entered a second Cold War.
“But one that is much more complicated than the previous Cold War because there are still so many interdependent links between what is deemed as authoritarian states versus liberal democracies,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry has accused the United States of “unreasonably suppressing” Chinese companies as Washington pushed ahead with its own ban on TikTok on government devices.
The Chinese government has blocked access to Western forms of social media in China including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more than a decade because they refuse to comply with its censorship requirements.
The Biden administration has threatened to extend the government ban on TikTok to all devices in the United States unless its Chinese owner ByteDance divests its stake. Australia has said it is not considering a similar move.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Beijing had “lodged solemn representations to the Australian side”.
“We urge the Australian side to effectively abide by the rules of market economy and the principle of fair competition, and provide a fair, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese enterprises,” she said on Tuesday night.
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