TikTok hits back at ‘misinformation’ about its ties to China in submission to Senate inquiry

Video messaging app TikTok has hit back at what it says is “misinformation” about its connection to China, characterising itself as a global platform with “strict controls around security and data access”.

The hugely popular platform has used a submission to the Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media to note “and welcome” Scott Morrison’s recent commentary after a “reported investigation by security agencies”.

The submission notes that the prime minister stated there was “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”.

The comments referenced in TikTok’s submission were made by Morrison at an American security forum in early August.

But the prime minister also said during that appearance that data on the app could potentially be accessed at a “sovereign state level” and “people need to understand where the extension cord goes back to”.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a technology company headquartered in Beijing, and has 1.6m Australian users, most under the age of 25.

The company has come under increasing scrutiny and pressure in several countries because various leaks suggest it censors material that harms China’s foreign policy aims or mentions its human rights record and because of the volume of data it collects on its users.

Donald Trump says the app is a threat to national security, and he has demanded a full sale of TikTok to an American owner. In August, the US president gave ByteDance 90 days to sell up or face a shutdown. He later issued twin executive orders banning US transactions with ByteDance and also the owner of the Chinese messaging and payments app WeChat.

Representatives from the company are due to appear before the Australian Senate inquiry on Friday.

In its written submission, TikTok attempts to counter some of the criticisms about security, saying the personal data it collects from Australian users is stored on servers located in the US and Singapore. The company states: “We would like to take this opportunity to address misinformation about TikTok’s connection to China.”

It says it has “never shared Australian user data with the Chinese government nor censored Australian content at its request”.

It says 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, which it defines as an “agreement between states outlining the terms for managing cross-jurisdictional requests for evidence”.

“The Chinese government or law enforcement would need to send the evidence disclosure request through the relevant MLAT process,” the submission says. “To date, we have not received any MLAT requests in respect of Australian user data.”

The platform also referenced the controversy in the US. It notes it has “been widely reported that ByteDance has been considering various strategic alternatives to meet the requirements of the US government that may result in a change to the TikTok business in Australia”.

The deputy chair of the Senate inquiry is the Liberal senator Jim Molan. Molan has previously characterised TikTok “a data collection service disguised as social media” that requires greater scrutiny by Australian users.

The Nationals MP George Christensen has accused TikTok of being “used and abused” by the Chinese Communist party and has called for it to be banned.

More recently, Morrison criticised the platform for moving too slowly in taking down a horrifying video that showed a man taking his own life. “Platforms like TikTok need to put in more resources to detect and tear down this sort of harmful content,” the prime minister said. “That is their responsibility.”

TikTok told the ABC the video had originated on Facebook. “Our systems have been automatically detecting and flagging these clips for violating our policies against content that displays, praises, glorifies or promotes suicide,” a company statement said.

“We are banning accounts that repeatedly try to upload clips, and we appreciate our community members who’ve reported content and warned others against watching, engaging, or sharing such videos on any platform out of respect for the person and their family.”

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