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TikTok tells Australian MPs to stop using it as ‘political football’

Social media company TikTok has written to Australian MPs claiming to be “caught in the middle” of rising tensions between countries, and saying it is being used as a “political football”.

The letter, sent to members of parliament on Monday, said it was correcting the record on “false claims” made about TikTok and the company’s ties to the Chinese government.

It followed calls by an anonymous federal MP calling for the app to be banned earlier this month, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, stating it was “right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risks they present”.

TikTok, an app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, allows users to share short videos, often in the form of lip-syncing or dancing. It is popular among younger people, and has been downloaded more than 2bn times globally.

Australia’s prime minister only became aware of the app when he was featured in a meme of TikTok users lip-syncing to his calling out ABC political editor Andrew Probyn at a press conference.

Since his comments which drew attention to the privacy issues with the app, Morrison has had dozens of accounts on Twitter begging him not to ban TikTok.

The main concerns surround whether TikTok’s parent company would be required to share information collected on users with the Chinese government.

Recently it was also discovered, through an Apple iOS 14 beta privacy function, that TikTok was reading the text of users’ clipboards.

The letter from the company’s Australian general manager, Lee Hunter, said TikTok is “independent, and not aligned with any government, political party or ideology”, and user data is kept secure.

“The truth is, with tensions rising between some countries, TikTok has unfortunately been caught in the middle and is being used by some as a political football. I assure you – we’re a social media platform for sharing videos – that’s all,” Hunter told Guardian Australia in a statement.

The company says Australian TikTok user data is stored in Singapore and the United States, and the company has never provided user data to the Chinese government. It says no government has “special access” to TikTok Australia user data.

Australia so far is much more cautious about plans to ban TikTok compared with India, which has already banned the app, or the US, where US secretary of state Mike Pompeo indicated a ban could go ahead.

The US navy and army have banned soldiers from using the app, and Amazon instructed workers to delete the app from their phones, before reversing that decision.

It is understood the app will be scrutinised by the Australian Senate’s investigation into foreign influence through social media, with the committee sending questions to the company this month.

TikTok has not yet made a formal submission to the inquiry, despite the letter drop to MPs.

To date, the inquiry’s focus has largely been on misinformation and other foreign actor campaigns conducted on the social media platforms, not whether the platforms themselves are engaged in surveillance on behalf of its home country.

In September, the Guardian revealed TikTok had instructed its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.

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