Monday, 2 December 2019
Internet Content: TikTok
It began with a tutorial on eyelash curling and ended with Chinese video-sharing app TikTok suspending a US teenager's account, to international headlines. The teenager's offence was using make-up tips to disguise her real message of criticism of China's treatment of its Uygur minority.
TikTok was developed by Beijing company ByteDance, in a very different internet ecosystem to our own. It's based on an app in the domestic Chinese market called Douyin, which is heavily censored and surveilled. In 2018, Douyin purged British cartoon character Peppa Pig from the platform because authorities decided that it had taken on a subversive meaning. If Xinjiang residents post traditional Uygur music sung in their native language on the app, Douyin's machine-learning algorithm may flag it, the post may be deleted, and it may even lead to a visit from the police.
Over the past year, TikTok has transcended its origins and it has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times—the majority of these outside of China. In 2018, it had more downloads than Facebook and Instagram. Its success has propelled ByteDance to become the most valuable start-up in the world.
It raises important questions for liberal democracies. How should we treat international internet platforms developed and managed in illiberal societies? It's easy to imagine how such platforms could be used for illiberal purposes, to varying degrees of concern: data harvesting for intelligence purposes, data harvesting for foreign influence operations, data harvesting for coercion of individuals and foreign interference and censorship for propaganda purposes or even electoral interference.
According to TikTok's content moderation guidelines, leaked to The Guardian in September, the company censors a wide range of content, including videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence and Falun Gong as well as criticism of 'policies, social rules of any countries, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers or socialism system'. The Washington Post reported in September that TikTok censored content about the Hong Kong protests. ByteDance claims that the leaked guidelines for censorship were retired in May and professes to be taking a localised approach to content moderation now. It's also apologised for the suspension of the account of the eyelash-curling US human rights campaigner and has reinstated her account.
But, as with major internet companies from any country, it's hard to know from the outside. Questions remain about how the Australian government should respond when the opacity of foreign owned internet platforms leaves us wondering whether their practices are consistent with our values or laws. The least we can ask for is that the Australian government ensures that it is in a position to inform Australian users of any problematic practices they may be subjected to on these platforms. It's important that the government talk to the Australian public about these issues, and we've got a long way to go on this front. It's not even clear which minister has responsibility for these issues in Australia. We need to do better, and quickly. It may seem challenging to confront these platforms now, but the issue will only grow in significance. It will be easier to act sooner rather than later.