Popular Video App Tik Tok Under National Security Review
Popular Video App Tik Tok Under National Security Review

What China-owned app tries to hide

Surging social media app TikTok is coming to Australia, with plans to open a head office in Sydney.

The app has been available here for a while but previously didn't have a local presence beyond the app itself.

The move comes as TikTok looks to further distance itself from its $A145 billion Chinese parent company ByteDance with global expansions under the TikTok brand.

In the past 18 months TikTok has hired general managers in the US, UK, India, Japan, Canada, and now Australia.

This is happening as scepticism mounts at an administrative level in some of those countries.

The US don't trust the app because it comes from China, and legislators there have been scrutinising the company, concerned about national security implications.

Members of the American armed services have been told not to use the app over privacy fears.

But absent in the company's announcement regarding the expansion was any mention of ByteDance, or indeed the country of China.

The announcement notes TikTok has many global offices "including Sydney, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul, and Tokyo".

The Shanghai office, where many of its top staff are based, doesn't rate a mention.

Lee Hunter, a former Google and YouTube executive, is set to become general manager of TikTok Australia.

He told news.com.au that ByteDance, the company who owns TikTok, wasn't worth mentioning on the announcement of its global expansion.

"I just don't think it has relevance to Australian users, they resonate with TikTok and TikTok is the brand we are here to support," he said.

"TikTok is a global business, it doesn't operate in China. Our ambitions are global in nature. I'm focused on the Australian side of that," Mr Hunter said.

 

He wasn't worried about the increased scrutiny, in fact he sees it as a positive thing.

"I think having that level of scrutiny has been a useful thing for us to focus harder - than any platform I've seen - on building trust," Mr Hunter said, acknowledging "that takes time and it takes a local team".

For that team, "building trust and safety is the main focus".

He added the expansion recognises the global growth of the app and that specifically in Australia its growth became more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said building out a local team would help TikTok "capitalise on what we've seen, but also reach out to more diverse creators users and partners, provide them with support and help them grow, and embed ourselves genuinely in Australian culture."

"Our intention is to provide that Australian voice to TikTok," Mr Hunter said.

Lee Hunter will be the general manager of TikTok Australia.
Lee Hunter will be the general manager of TikTok Australia.


He said TikTok - like many other online services - saw growth during the pandemic as people were forced to stay inside.

"During the lockdown people gravitated to staying at home, staying on their phones. TikTok was a great resource for them, we saw a pace that surprised us and delighted us and spurred on efforts to get a team on the ground," Mr Hunter said.

Mr Hunter will also be joined at TikTok by Brent Thomas as director of public policy.

He previously worked at Airbnb and before that held "senior policy and corporate affairs roles in the finance and technology sectors".

"One of his big roles: he wants to connect with a lot of institutions: governments, NGOs, understanding how we can make TikTok better for everyone, with a particular focus on trust and safety," Mr Hunter said.

Another focus was on "creating a safe positive environment" for "all users".

TikTok has been accused of not treating all users fairly in the app in a variety of scenarios.

In March, The Intercept reported that the company had internal policy documents telling moderators to suppress videos from disabled content creators, as well as any deemed to be too "ugly" or "poor", in a bid to attract new users by not presenting these videos in people's feeds.

Moderators were also told to censor political speech in livestreams.

AFL player Joel Selwood uses wife Brit as a mop during a Tiktok clip during the pandemic.
AFL player Joel Selwood uses wife Brit as a mop during a Tiktok clip during the pandemic.

 

The NRL’s Nathan Cleary was also in hot-water over a mid-pandemic TikTok.
The NRL’s Nathan Cleary was also in hot-water over a mid-pandemic TikTok.

Questioned on the creation of a safe positive environment for all users, Mr Hunter said that was "absolutely the intention".

While the company has announced several hires today, one position remains unfilled, and it might sound like a strange position for some.

The company is looking to hire a local head of music.

TikTok is a social media app but like all the big social media apps its influence spreads far beyond the limits of the screen.

The ability to remix short videos using other people's content has had a massive impact on the music industry as TikTok has become a barometer for what song's are going to blow up.

Smash hits like Lil Nas X's Old Town Road and Roddy Ricch's The Box both hit number one on the Billboard 100 in the United States shortly after going viral on TikTok, beating out more established artists on the way.

"I believe music is at the heart of a lot of content that succeeds, that's what makes it successful," Mr Hunter said.

Lil Nas X’s big hit first went viral on TikTok. Picture: Frito-Lay North America
Lil Nas X’s big hit first went viral on TikTok. Picture: Frito-Lay North America

He added that whoever the eventual music head is, he thinks "they have to be Australian", to understand the local industry nuances and to believe in promoting it.

"I just believe there's a huge opportunity to really celebrate Australian artists and work closely with the industry, People love to create content with music underpinning it, you see that reflected in the charts these days," Mr Hunter said, adding that building up Australian artists was another way of "embedding ourselves genuinely at the heart of what's happening in Australia".

Another way TikTok is hoping to make positive contributions is through its TikTok for Good charitable initiative.

That initiative announced a $A3 million donation The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity alongside the announcement of the global expansion.

Mr Hunter said donations in the TikTok for Good were another way TikTok were trying to "make sure we deliver more back to the communities we're involved in rather than extract from them".

"Throughout [the pandemic] these people are doing fantastic research finding a vaccine and throughout the lockdown TikTok was a place people flocked to, it was something good to recognise that connection," he said.

Asked whether it was in response to anti-vax content emerging on TikTok, Mr Hunter declined to get into the specifics but directed news.com.au back to its "publicly available" policies.

“Proana” content should be banned under TikTok’s community guidelines but that doesn’t stop it appearing on the platform. Source: TikTok
“Proana” content should be banned under TikTok’s community guidelines but that doesn’t stop it appearing on the platform. Source: TikTok

The document that forms TikTok's Terms of Service document is close to 28,000 words but not one of them is "anti-vaccine" or its colloquial "anti-vax".

It does note that by accepting the Terms Of Service (which you have to do in order to post anything) you agree to abide by the Community Guidelines.

That 3200 word Community Guidelines page similarly doesn't single out anti-vax content, but it does tell users not to post "misinformation that may cause harm to an individual's health, such as misleading information about medical treatments".

All-or-nothing terms of service agreements that users have to agree to in order to access a service was one of the key issues highlighted in the consumer watchdog's Digital Platforms Inquiry.

 

Originally published as What China-owned app tries to hide

Teen health professionals recently criticised the app for the content that appears on it. Source: TikTok
Teen health professionals recently criticised the app for the content that appears on it. Source: TikTok

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