Popular video messaging app TikTok may be “a data collection service disguised as social media” that requires greater scrutiny by Australian users, the deputy chair of the Foreign Interference through Social Media inquiry has said.
Liberal senator Jim Molan made the comments to Guardian Australia after Nationals MP George Christensen accused TikTok of being “used and abused” by the Chinese Communist party and called for it to be banned. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has also urged caution on people handing over their data to the app.
TikTok Australian general manager, Lee Hunter, has said it does not share users’ data with foreign governments and dismissed similar concerns from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi) that there are “[CCP] cells inside the company” as not credible.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a technology company headquartered in Beijing, and has 1.6m Australian users, most under 25.
TikTok has come under increased scrutiny due to leaks showing it censors material that harms China’s foreign policy aims or mentions its human rights record and the volume of data it collects on its users.
On Monday, Christensen posted on Facebook that TikTok “should be banned in Australia as should other online communication networks used and abused by Communist China’s intelligence/military apparatus including WeChat”.
Morrison said it was “right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risk they present”
The prime minister told 2GB he found it “passing strange” that some people had raised privacy concerns about the Australian government’s CovidSafe app “but they’ll load their dance moves up on TikTok in the afternoon”.
“So I think people have to be quite conscious in this digital age that all of these platforms, they all go back to places and people are knowingly handing over their data and their information and all of these things.”
Molan said he has “similar concerns” about TikTok but also believes that all social media companies must be more transparent about the amount of information they collect and how they protect users’ privacy.
“There are claims by people who have reverse-engineered TikTok that it’s a data collection service disguised as social media,” he said.
“It conducts GPS pinging quite regularly. And other nations – Australia and India – have banned its use in their militaries.
“It may not be what it seems to be … I think people should understand and be informed about what this form of social networking does involve.”
Molan said it was too early to consider a ban and instead encouraged individuals to exercise personal responsibility.
“If you want to be someone’s dupe, you’re likely to do the wrong thing,” he said. “Be your own person – it comes down to whether you mind being tricked.”
Jenny McAllister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, told Guardian Australia “when we have national security and tech experts raising concerns about TikTok, we have to take those concerns seriously”.
“There have been credible reports that TikTok takes more data than its users would expect, and moderates content for reasons that its users may not be comfortable with,” she said.
“Social media platforms are a bit of a black box for the average user. All platforms should be more transparent about the way in which they use data and promote content.
“We want Australians to have confidence that the only thing to worry about when using TikTok is the quality of their dance moves.”
McAllister urged TikTok to appear before the select committee and accused the government of failing to show “leadership” in responding to the issue.
Hunter told Guardian Australia: “TikTok does not share information of our users in Australia with any foreign government, including the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked. We place the highest importance on user privacy and integrity.”
“We always welcome the opportunity to meet with policy makers to talk about TikTok, including the steps we’re taking to make it an even safer and more creative place.”
Asked about Christensen’s comments, Brent Thomas, the director of public policy at TikTok Australia said “this is an extreme position from an MP with a long history of extreme positions”.