The chair of the Senate’s committee investigating social media and foreign interference has demanded information on government investigations into TikTok, slamming the Prime Minister’s department for months-long delays to “basic questions”.
“Now more than ever, it’s important that Australians are able to trust the government’s advice about how they can and should engage with online platforms,” committee chair Jenny McAllister, a Labor senator from NSW, told The New Daily.
Her concerns stem from statements made in August by PM Scott Morrison about TikTok, the massively popular video app owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance.
It counts some 1.6 million Australians among more than 800 million global users, but has faced questions over alleged data harvesting and links to the Chinese government.
Former US President Donald Trump threatened to outlaw the app, while federal MPs called for similar action in Australia.
Mr Morrison said in July he was “looking closely” at TikTok. However, by August 5, the PM told a security forum that Australia had “a good look at this, and there is no evidence for us to suggest that there is any misuse of any people’s data that has occurred”.
It had been reported in August that the Department of Home Affairs was conducting a security assessment of TikTok, but access to such documents have been repeatedly denied.
Labor senators used Senate estimates hearings in October to pose a set of detailed questions on notice to the Prime Minister’s department about what government action had been taken or which reviews had been ordered, and what information Mr Morrison was referring to with his “good look” comments.
Under orders of the Senate, those questions should have been answered by late October.
On December 11, in another hearing, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet assistant secretary Lachlan Colquhon admitted the answers to the questions had “taken far too long but they have not yet been finally cleared”. Another set of questions on notice was posed, due at the end of January.
As of February 10, the answers to both sets of still have not been returned.
Senator McAllister, chair of the Senate’s Select Committee on Foreign Interference through social media, said it was crucial to know what security assessment had been done by the Australian government.
“Scott Morrison is allergic to scrutiny. He cut funding to the audit office, opposed a federal anti-corruption body and now refuses to answer basic questions about his public statements,” she said.
“Now more than ever, it’s important that Australians are able to trust the government’s advice about how they can and should engage with online platforms. Failure to answer questions about his public statements undermine this trust.
“The Prime Minister should provide the basis for his public advice about the safety of TikTok.”
In September, TikTok denied it would take instruction from the Chinese government to hand over Australians’ data or censor content.
TikTok FOI rejected
The New Daily has made several requests, under Freedom of Information laws, for the TikTok security review conducted by Home Affairs. The department has all seemingly confirmed that one was carried out, telling TND in a decision letter in November that it had found “one document as falling within the scope of your request”.
However, access to the document was twice refused. The department relied on exemptions to the FOI Act, which allow for access to be denied on grounds that they were “documents affecting national security” and “cabinet documents”.
A previous Home Affairs assessment, conducted in January 2020, looked at whether the app should be allowed on phones owned by the department. The department’s Cyber Risk Services branch ruled the department should “ensure that TikTok is restricted on the mobile device”.
The assessment claimed there were “high” risks of hacking, or a “nation state” gaining access to sensitive information.
A spokesperson from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said responses to Labor’s Senate questions on notice were in progress.
“Responses to these questions on notice are currently being finalised, due to delays in the clearance process. They will be provided as soon as that process is completed,” the spokesperson told TND.
“PM&C is aware of its responsibilities for responding to Parliamentary Committee Inquiry Questions on Notice, and endeavours to reply to questions as soon as possible.”
New focus on misinformation
Senator McAllister said the social media committee would soon be kicking back into gear for 2021. After social media giants TikTok and Facebook were called to appear before federal parliament last year, it’s expected a big focus this year will be on online misinformation and its potential to do real-world harm.
“For years the government has failed to take the threat of foreign interference through social media seriously. They should have done more to understand the risk to Australia and what solutions we have available,” Senator McAllister said.