National Security

Threat of Digital Cold War

April 1, 2024

Monday 1 April 2024
Kat Wong and Belad Al-Karkhey
Kalgoorlie Miner

 Social media platform TikTok could become the frontline of a "digital  cold war" that splits the internet between the West and the rest of the  world, experts say.
 The short-form video app is one of the fastest-growing platforms in the  world, with more than 170 million users in the US and 8.5 million in  Australia.
 But, citing national security concerns, the US House of Representatives in  March passed a Bill giving TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, six months to  divest the app and sell the asset to a company not based in China.
 Failing to do this, Apple's App Store and Google Play store would be barred  from hosting TikTok, meaning the app would be banned across the US.
 The move has raised questions about TikTok's future in Australia, as the  Federal Opposition calls for similar action.
 University of Sydney digital cultures lecturer Chunmeizi Su says any ban  could transform the internet from a globalised source of information into a  platform splintered along geopolitical lines.
 "If we're voting yes for a TikTok ban, we're voting for a new digital  cold war," Dr Su said.
 ByteDance is viewed as being inseparably tied to the Chinese state, fanning  concerns about the impact of the TikTok algorithm's influence on Western  users, and its data collection practices.
 Australian National University political science associate professor Graeme  Smith says calls for a ban in some ways reflect broader geopolitical  tensions.
 "Congress is filled with old white men and this is one way to signal  that they're tough on China even if most of them don't understand the  app," he said.
 The app is already banned on Australian public servants' workissued phones  but the Federal Government says it has "no plan" to emulate the US.
 Professor Smith says this allows Australia to demonstrate a more nuanced  approach to geopolitics and proves the Government doesn't always move in  lockstep with the Americans.
 But there are other concerns about the app.
 TikTok's algorithm presents content on sensitive issues like violence in Gaza  and unrest in Hong Kong in alignment with the Chinese Government's interests,  shadow home affairs minister James Paterson says.
 But the company has previously denied allegations its algorithm takes  political sides, saying it reflects users' interests.
 University of Melbourne technology researcher Suelette Dreyfus says it isn't  clear whether TikTok exerts influence on news content because the algorithm  is not open source.
 This is an issue for all tech companies, regardless of where they are based.
 "The algorithms don't set out to give you an accurate picture of the  world and if you believe that they do, then you're being manipulated,"  Dr Dreyfus said.
 TikTok's highly sophisticated recommendation system can proliferate  misinformation and often sends users down a rabbit hole of biassed online  posts, Dr Dreyfus said.
 Previous reporting has found TikTok instructed moderators to suppress posts  from users deemed too ugly, poor or disabled, for example.
 There are also anxieties about the lack of transparency behind its data  collection practices.
 In 2022, an internal investigation by ByteDance found employees had tracked  multiple journalists who reported on the company.
 Meanwhile, all Chinese companies are legally required to hand over their data  to the Government. TikTok's data is stored in Malaysia, Singapore and the US,  and it's unclear whether ByteDance has been compelled to share this  information with China.
 But a TikTok spokesperson for Australia and New Zealand said the company has  "never shared user data with the Chinese Government, nor would we if  asked".
 "Some of the best-known and trusted Australian companies, including  banks and telcos, openly state in their privacy policies that they share  Australian user information with employees and third parties around the  world, including China," they said. In 2020, Facebook was sued for  failing to protect users' personal data after British consulting firm  Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested data from 87 million profiles  for political advertising.
 But politicians in the US and Australia are less concerned by these companies  because they are headquartered in western countries and beholden to privacy  legislation and direct regulatory intervention.
 Referencing China's persecution of Uighur people, Senator Paterson also  argued there were differences between a travel company buying data from a  social media company to advertise holiday deals and "giving my data to  an authoritarian government, which has been credibly accused of  genocide".
 US-owned company Meta, which operates Facebook, has also played a role in  ethnic cleansing with an Amnesty International report revealing the website's  algorithm fuelled the Myanmar military's atrocities against the Rohingya  people.
 But even this is not comparable, Senator Paterson said. "(Facebook) is  not perpetuating genocide like the Chinese Government is in Xinjiang,"  he said.
 "But of course, we should look at regulation of social media companies  to deal with the unintended and adverse effects, there's no question about  that." Senator Paterson is not calling for a ban on TikTok but is  advocating for Australia to follow in the US' footsteps in encouraging  ByteDance to sever the app's relationship with China.
 But Dr Dreyfus maintains the main issue goes beyond any one particular app.
 "This is a debate about who gets to use the newest tool of geopolitical  influence," Dr Dreyfus said.
 "Invisible persuasion of entire populations by an attack platform may  become every bit as powerful as traditional weapons, when it comes to evoking  a particular desired change." All this threatens to divide the internet  into geographical spheres a concept referred to as "the  splinternet", RMIT cybersecurity professor Matthew Warren said.
 China and Iran both have firewalls that block websites like Facebook, YouTube  and Twitter.
 Russia has an internet censorship list that initially barred sites with drug,  suicide and child sexual abuse content but has expanded to include  "extremist" government criticism.
 Meanwhile, India and Nepal have banned TikTok.
 The internet was originally pitched as a globalised and free  information-sharing platform but Professor Warren says this may be a thing of  the past.
 Caught among this Big Tech tempest are ordinary TikTok users: the millions of  young people who use the app to share memes with their friends and the  thousands of small businesses who rely on the platform as their main  marketing tool.
 If governments are truly worried about privacy and data, Dr Dreyfus says they  should regulate for greater transparency in social media.
 This means protecting free speech while also letting users know when and how  their personal information is being used instead of allowing it to be  "secretly slurped away".

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