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The Political Tsunami of Banning TikTok: A Pandora’s Box of Consequences

By Charles Dane, Policy and Government Relations Advisor, Governance Institute

Caught up in the echo of the global debate surrounding TikTok’s governance and clashing with an ongoing Privacy Act review, Australia now finds itself at a pivotal juncture of whether to ban or not to ban?

TikTok, the social media platform owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has become a symbol of China’s rising influence in the tech world. With over a billion users worldwide, it’s not just a platform for lip-syncing and dance challenges. It’s a digital behemoth with the power to shape narratives and influence minds.

Beneath TikTok’s vibrant veneer, however, lies a labyrinth of complex issues that raise questions about surveillance, foreign influence, and identity for Australia. TikTok’s incredible reach combined with a lack of transparency about corporate and data governance has led to scrutiny from multiple governments around the world.

So far, only India has banned the platform.

The US failed to ban TikTok under the Trump Administration with efforts stifled by legal challenges. The Biden Administration has so far only managed to ban TikTok from US Federal Agency devices.

The US House of Representatives have now taken the TikTok baton and ‘passed a landmark bill’ that gives ‘ByteDance six months to sell its controlling stake or the app [will] be blocked in the US’. It requires ByteDance to spin American TikTok off to an American owner because of two major threats identified by Republican Representative Mike Gallagher: the “espionage threat” of data security concerns and the Chinese “propaganda threat”.

This bill is now headed to the Senate.

Similarly, Australia has also banned TikTok on political and senior government officials’ devices, a policy replicated in many countries, such as the UK, Canada, France and New Zealand.

So why is TikTok coping the ire of western governments?

At first glance, TikTok appears innocuous, a playground for creativity and connection. But peel back the layers and a different reality emerges, one in which data flows freely across borders, algorithms shape our online experiences and geopolitical tensions simmer.

It’s not a mere social media platform but a geopolitical battleground where tech, politics, and culture collide.

Central to the TikTok conundrum are legitimate concerns over its governance structures, surveillance potential and data governance. As users scroll through their feeds, every swipe, like, and comment generates a treasure trove of data that is harvested, analysed, and monetised by ByteDance and its algorithms, a form of value creation that transcends traditional capitalism.

Another concern is that TikTok’s influence is not without other serious societal risks. TikTok’s algorithms have been accused of promoting harmful content, perpetuating echo chambers, and exacerbating societal divisions. These issues are not confined to TikTok, with Meta having similar issues. The major difference between the two is that Meta is a US company.

So, is it the Chinese ownership of TikTok and the implications this has on surveillance and data privacy that is causing the political concern or is it the phenomenal success and reach of TikTok that has governments worried about their lack of control over the TikTok algorithm?

It’s likely a nuanced combination of both. But with little in the way of precedent, how governments deal with this paradox is the unique challenge.

TikTok’s corporate governance issues in the US have long been a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Clearly irked by TikTok’s opaque ownership structure and its questionable data practices, TikTok is facing an uphill battle when it comes to winning the trust of American users and regulators alike.

What happens to TikTok in Australia if the US bill is passed in the Senate? Does that change the governance concerns here? The answer to this might be more revealing than any speech in Parliament.

Challenging TikTok’s operations in Australia is the growing concern of political influence and foreign interference on social media platforms. The spread of disinformation campaigns and covert influence operations, particularly during election periods, has raised questions about the integrity of the democratic process and the role of all tech companies in safeguarding it. Efforts to combat electoral interference and strengthen digital resilience have since become key priorities for policymakers seeking to protect Australia’s national security interests.

Commentator Alan Kohler has suggested Australia differ from the approach in the USA without spinning off the business to a local or more geopolitically friendly owner, instead calling for a complete ban.

Could TikTok seriously be a vehicle for Chinese propaganda or as Kohler says, “a foreign influence operation”? If this is the case, does Australia, the US, and other allies ban all media organisations that are Chinese owned?

For Australia, it is not just a technical decision. It’s a political minefield with potentially explosive consequences. While concerns over national security and data governance are valid, the Australian government will have to tread carefully to avoid inadvertently infringing on civil liberties and damaging its relationship with China, particularly given the recent trade wins.

Banning TikTok appears a simple solution to a complex problem akin to playing with fire in a room filled with gasoline. Sure, it might extinguish the immediate threat, but the collateral damage could be catastrophic.

Love it or hate it, TikTok has become a platform for expression, creativity, and dissent. Banning it would be a blow Australia’s implied culture of freedom of expression, setting a dangerous precedent for government censorship in the digital age. This is especially concerning when the boundaries of corporate governance and freedom of speech are often blurred in some contexts, as corporations wield considerable influence over public discourse or operate in industries with broad societal implications.

Any ban will also have economic fallout. TikTok has become more than just a playground for Gen Z, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with thousands of jobs at stake, including content creators to small business advertisers, to app developers. Any ban on TikTok would have significant economic implications, disrupting supply chains and damaging businesses large and small.

Patricia Karvelas writes that any thought of a ban is not feasible as ‘the horse has, in many ways, already bolted. Millions of young people are not only obsessed with the platform, but many have monetised it, making it a brave government that stands in the way of that basic economic reality’.

What is clear though, is that the Australian Government looks to have been blindsided by the rapid spread of yet another US political issue into the Australian cultural and political zeitgeist.

To date, we have heard different messages from senior ministers, carefully avoiding any red lines on the issue.

From Communications Minister Michelle Rowland saying we are monitoring the situation with no current plans on to ban TikTok, Tanya Plibersek saying we will act on the relevant security agency advice, and Bill Shorten declaring that we will not ban TikTok, it’s clear the Government needs to gather a coherent message that aligns with our political and economic context.

Ultimately, the arguments supporting a ban are not without merit, but there are more pressing legislative issues, like ensuring a best-in-class Privacy Act regime.

Fareed Zakaria elegantly advocates for more fundamental data and privacy reform, as opposed to cherry picking platform legality in the US.

There is a much better way to solve this problem — a comprehensive data privacy law that would protect all Americans’ data and give people the right to stop companies from using, misusing and selling it. Unfortunately, taking on Big Tech is a much more difficult battle than bashing China.

With privacy reform on the agenda in the US and here in Australia, this should be the legislative focus of both governments as data governance issues are not confined to one platform or algorithm.

Q&A with Governance Institute

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