Government bans threaten to call time on TikTok

The world's most popular app, TikTok, faces an uncertain future as more countries ban its use on government devices.

Communications, Digital, Data breach, Digital Media, Engagement

Staff Writer 14 Apr 2023
3 mins
Person holding a smartphone using TikTok

The world’s most popular app may soon disappear off thousands of devices. TikTok usage on government devices has now been in banned in 15 countries over national security and privacy concerns.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company Bytedance, has long faced criticism over its data collection practices. The company collects vast amounts of user data, including user location, browsing history, and more.

That data collection has raised concerns that it could be shared with the Chinese government upon request, under the country’s National Intelligence Law.

Implemented in 2017, the legislation requires organisations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law.”

Fears of espionage and concerns over national security have spurred several countries to ban TikTok on all government devices, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Taiwan and the United States. The domino effect continues, with more and more governments around the world taking the same action.

For its part, TikTok has denied any ties to the Chinese government and reiterated its position on privacy and security.

Chinese government officials also maintain that Beijing would not ask companies to hand over data collected overseas.

TikTok’s General Manager of Operations in Australia and New Zealand, Lee Hunter, described the Australian government’s ban of the app as unfair, saying it was “illogical, unjust and unsupported by any evidence.”

“If the government is truly concerned about user data, why has it not restricted platforms that collect just as much or more data than TikTok, such as Facebook, Instagram and Google?” Mr Hunter asked.

“Unfortunately, it’s because TikTok has been unfairly caught up in broader political tensions between the West and China simply because we were founded by Chinese entrepreneurs.”

In testimony to a recent US House of Representatives committee hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the company was in the process of finalising a new structure which will ensure US data will be protected by and be under the control of a US-led security team.

The dialogue surrounding data privacy and TikTok is not new. In June 2020, India banned TikTok and several other apps associated with the Chinese government. While in Australia, federal government departments such as home affairs, finance and the NDIA had their own departmental bans on the app before the blanket ban was announced.

The ban does not apply to non-corporate government entities, such as the ABC, SBS, Australia Post and NBN Co.

But following the ban, both the ABC and Australia Post announced they would review their use of TikTok. It is currently unknown how far the policy will go and whether it will affect government contractors or those relying on social media such as tourism bodies.

Organisations around the world will also review their usage and social media strategies, if they haven’t done so already. But will these bans halt TikTok’s race to the top? With more than 1 billion global users, this is unlikely.

TikTok is facing great reputational damage in the eyes of politicians and business leaders, but it is too soon to say if any of those concerns are being seriously contemplated by its everyday users.

The long-term effects for TikTok may be dire if the company does not satisfy governments around the world, but the company’s willingness to work with the United States to improve data security is a positive sign.

The power of TikTok to allow influencers and businesses to reach millions of people is its greatest attribute.

But as organisations and individuals continue using the platform, demands for TikTok to be a responsible patron of its users’ data will continue to grow.