The Australian government’s knee-jerk decision this week to ban just TikTok, and just on government devices, is a case of a media release chasing a serious issue.
Despite the political rhetoric and media storm following the announcement, banning TikTok isn’t serious reform. If we’re not careful it will just be the first hammer blow in an endless game of online whack-a-mole.
While there are undeniable risks from TikTok’s aggressive harvesting and manipulation of personal data, these very same issues apply across the board from Meta, to Twitter, Google, Amazon and more.
When you get a message from your health app that you are halfway to your movement goal, it’s almost certain that the data they mined to send you that message is no more secure, and no less at risk of exploitation, than the data collected by TikTok. The difference with TikTok is all about politics, not data security.
The single-minded focus on TikTok signals a worrying lack of understanding within government and public policy-making and it is leaving millions of Australians without any effective privacy protections.
The Labor government, backed by the Coalition and after years of collective inaction on privacy and data security, is clapping itself on the back for ring-fencing the Commonwealth government from TikTok, as though that’s solved the problem.
It hasn’t and it won’t. What it has done is expose a disturbing lack of understanding and desire for meaningful change.
The data security concerns around TikTok are mirrored in pretty much every other social media platform, the difference is that our government is not running a fear campaign against the governments that host those platforms. France recently banned not just TikTok from government devices, but also Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, gaming apps like Candy Crush and dating apps.
Health and fertility apps sell highly sensitive personal data. Biometric data is collected and used to feed and train AI systems which can then bypass biometric securities such as voice authentication used by government services relied on by millions of vulnerable Australians. Meta’s Facebook and Instagram can track users’ keystrokes in their in-app internet browsers.
How does the TikTok ban address any of these serious invasions of privacy? Data harvesting is happening right now as I type this piece into a Google doc, on a government device. To be clear there is almost zero federal regulation over any of this.
Banning TikTok from government devices is a publicity stunt which masks the underlying issue that our data is being exploited by any corporation who can get their hands on it.
Meanwhile 66 federal parliamentarians have TikTok accounts, while Labor, the Liberals and Greens parties all have party accounts. 18 Coalition federal parliamentarians are on TikTok, despite the LNP being the loudest supporter of a ban.
What’s needed is a radical rethink in regulatory policy for online technologies, with platform neutral controls that are founded on clear public interest principles, together with a well resourced, nimble and transparent regulator. We need a regulatory environment that sets out and enforces principles that all platforms must comply with that limit data harvesting and provide strong privacy protections that cannot be surrendered with a click.
There’s somewhere in between a tech free-for-all and the authoritarian overreach of government bans. We need to inform and empower individuals, not partially protect the government and throw millions of everyday Australians to the unregulated online wolves.
We also cannot just leave this work to governments, any serious reform needs to give the public appropriate legal remedies that can be accessed through the courts.
We urgently need strategic leadership on data and online security risks that will deliver advice not only on TikTok but on all major social media platforms accessed in Australia today.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia are already using social media platforms like Twitter to crack down on dissent and political expression and yet we hear no outrage from the Coalition or the government about this. Perhaps because that highlights how unregulated tech billionaires might also be a threat to our online safety.
The next dangerous risk to privacy will come from where we least expect it. Banning one platform solves nothing.
Senator David Shoebridge is the Australian Greens spokesperson for digital rights
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.