TikTok bans: will Asia follow West’s lead as US turns the screws on China-linked app?

25 Mar 2023

South China Morning Post, 25 Mar 2023, TikTok bans: will Asia follow West’s lead as US turns the screws on China-linked app?

  • Malaysia’s worried about content moderation and some in Indonesia are calling for a government review over data collection and spying fears
  • But banning TikTok seems like a low priority for most Asian nations – except India – and not engaging with the app may carry ‘greater risks’

TikTok bans are all the rage in Western capitals at the moment, as each seemingly follows in lockstep with an earlier order from Washington for the Chinese-owned video-sharing app to be removed from US government-issued phones.
Britain and New Zealand this month banned TikTok from official government devices – a move it is widely believed Australia will soon emulate – weeks after Canada and European Union governing bodies did likewise.
Pressure is mounting on Joe Biden’s administration to ban the app from the US entirely, with TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi warning ahead of testifying before Congress on Thursday that the company was at a “pivotal moment” in its history.
The combative hearing lasted more than four hours, with Chew repeatedly being cut off as he attempted to answer hostile questions from members of both US political parties.
“Let me state this unequivocally: [TikTok developer] ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he said in his testimony.
Analysts say much of Asia – apart from India, which banned it in 2020 – still considers TikTok as “just another social media app”. The response in Japan and South Korea to Western bans on national security grounds has largely been muted, while Singapore’s recent statements about officials only using the app on “a needs-to basis” fit with its existing policies for government-issued devices.
However, that is not to say there has not been a groundswell of concern about TikTok in the region. Some cybersecurity specialists in Indonesia – the app’s second-biggest market after the US – are urging the government to launch a review over spying fears, and Malaysia has raised concerns about “biased and prejudiced” content moderation.
Security concerns

Of TikTok’s more than 1 billion global users, around 600 million were based in the Asia-Pacific region as of 2021, according to industry information platform Business of Apps. Those figures excluded mainland China, where only the Chinese version of the app – known as Douyin – is available. Neither app can be downloaded in Hong Kong.
Washington and its allies maintain that TikTok poses a national security threat because of the user data it collects.
Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman, a research fellow on regional security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (RSIS) Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said on social media that “even if there are evident technical security concerns” with the app, “it’s politically and economically difficult for Singapore to take the same approach as Western countries”.
Doing so, he later told This Week in Asia, would “cast a pall on the [city state’s] tech sector that is already reeling from massive lay-offs and economic uncertainties”.
Indeed, Singapore’s approach to social-media apps on government devices was based on existing policy in that they were generally not allowed to be installed to “prevent any negative impact on employees’ productivity”, said Roy Ka-Wei Lee, an assistant professor of information systems at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
“These social-media applications are mainly used for public outreach and communication,” he said, adding that the island state had a strong track record of implementing “robust” cybersecurity measures and being proactive in addressing potential threats to its systems and networks.
“As of now, Singapore’s approach towards TikTok remains largely unchanged; it is just another social media app.”
Roy Ka-Wei Lee, information systems professor
“As of now, Singapore’s approach towards TikTok remains largely unchanged; it is just another social-media app, and no targeted action is [being] taken.”
About 1.83 million people aged 18 and older were using TikTok in Singapore as of early last year, according to developer ByteDance’s advertising materials.
Lee said the city state had invested heavily in developing the skills and capabilities needed to address emerging threats under a framework developed by its Cyber Security Agency, and would continue to monitor and make assessments on threats technologies posed to national security.
Whether other countries decide to implement a ban, or more targeted restrictions, on TikTok would depend on their cybersecurity capabilities and the level of risk that they deemed that the app posed, weighed against any potential benefits of using it, he said.

The Biden administration reportedly demanded last week that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the company or the app could be banned – a move that came nearly two-and-half years after Donald Trump had threatened to do the same via an executive order.
Banning TikTok outright would hit “all 150 million” Americans who used the app currently, company CEO Chew warned in a video on Tuesday, adding: “That’s almost half the US.”
“The bottom line is: This is American data on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” he said in his testimony to Congress on Thursday.
‘I’m not worried’
While many Chinese apps such as Tencent’s WeChat have failed to find much success outside China, TikTok was the world’s fastest-growing app for a time, reaching 1 billion users only five years after launch.
Indonesia had around 99.1 million TikTok users as of last year, according to social media data aggregator We Are Social, with the app’s popularity already so established by November 2021 that ByteDance chose the country as a test market for TikTok Seller, a separate app that allows users to manage their product listings on the platform.
TikTok also ranked as Indonesia’s third most-used e-commerce platform between December and February – behind Singapore’s Shopee and home-grown Tokopedia – according to Jakarta-based cashback app and e-commerce data provider Snapcart.
Though the app was briefly banned in 2018 for “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy” – a ban that was overturned less than a week later after TikTok agreed to censor content deemed inappropriate by officials – spying concerns do not appear as widespread in Indonesia as they are in the West.
“All social media applications are used to spy on their users.”
Ardi Sutedja, chairman and founder of the Indonesia Cyber Security Forum
Annisa Steviani, a financial planner with more than 15,000 followers on TikTok who likes to share financial advice and tips on motherhood in her videos, said: “I’m not worried about TikTok stealing [my personal data] or spying on me because I’m not sure that my data is safe [anyway].”
Relying on the Indonesian government to protect her data was “hopeless”, she said, adding: “You could say I’m the type of person that doesn’t really think about whether I’m protected [online] or not, or whether an app steals data or not.”
Annisa said she did her best to protect herself from a possible data breach through measures such as two-factor authentication, using a specific phone number to register for social media, and not saving her credit-card details on any website.
While such approaches did provide a certain layer of protection, they did nothing to prevent an app from harvesting or misusing user data as it was possible that “all social-media applications are used to spy on [the behaviour of] their users”, said Ardi Sutedja, chairman and founder of the Indonesia Cyber Security Forum.
Calling for Jakarta to review the way it approached TikTok, he highlighted the troves of “very expensive data” being collected that “might be used for purposes such as crime” or in other nefarious ways.
‘Biased’ moderation?
In Malaysia, where there were more than 14 million TikTok users last year, the app has come under fire over concerns other than data security after content related to the deadly sectarian riots of 1969 circulated on the platform, with some posts calling for a repeat.
TikTok also proved pivotal to the performance of former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition in November’s national polls, with the pro-Malay alliance leaning heavily on the platform to boost its fortunes following lacklustre results in state elections just months earlier.
The app’s emergence as a stronghold of the opposition appears to have got under the skin of the current government, with communications minister Fahmi Fadzil summoning TikTok’s representatives in Malaysia to explain its “biased and prejudiced” moderation system and the proliferation of divisive content, just days after his appointment to the portfolio.
“From what I’ve seen on social media, some have begun questioning the moderation level of TikTok in Malaysia,” he said.
TikTok has publicly denied such allegations, including one that claims more than 4,000 people had “infiltrated” its moderator group. In early March, it also revised its policies and banned political advertisements from the platform.
“We do not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, government, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state or local level,” TikTok Malaysia’s public-policy head Hafizin Tajudin said at the time.
Perikatan Nasional’s success in harnessing the app largely stemmed from it relying on content created by third parties, with official accounts of party leaders posting only occasionally, said researcher Ooi Kok Hin in a report published by Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Videos made by ordinary content creators might become viral, not only those by creators with a million followers,” he wrote, noting that TikTok’s algorithm often made for a more level playing field.
For influencer Iqbal Fathki, who has more than 30,000 TikTok followers and makes videos that often top one million views, neither the app’s roots in China nor the security of his data is his biggest concern amid the incessant power struggle in Malaysia, where three prime ministers have come to power in as many years.
“What I am worried about is the amplification of previously smaller groups whose voices have since been able to coalesce into a much louder entity driven by ethnocentric, sectarian or fascistic sentiments,” Iqbal told This Week in Asia.

Risks either way
If Australia, which has about 7 million TikTok users, goes ahead as expected with banning the app from government devices, it will become the final member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance to do so after the US, Canada, Britain and New Zealand.

In announcing its plans to ban TikTok earlier this month following a review by cybersecurity experts, Britain cited the “risk around how sensitive government data is accessed and used”.
Apps such as TikTok collected huge amounts of data on users, including contacts and location, which “can be sensitive” on government devices, said British Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office Oliver Dowden, adding that “the security of sensitive government information must come first”.
Australian opposition senator James Paterson was quoted by local media last week asking what was taking Anthony Albanese’s government so long to ban TikTok, as Australia had “led the world” in banning Huawei. Paterson was previously blocked by Beijing from a study tour to China.
Canberra banned Huawei Technologies Co from supplying equipment for Australia’s 5G mobile network in 2018, citing national security risks, leading to the withdrawal of the Chinese tech giant from the country.
Australia is in the midst of a national cybersecurity strategy review and at the tail end of a seven-month high-level review into TikTok specifically, whose outcomes are set to be handed to the department of home affairs any day now.
But Paul Haskell-Dowland, professor of cybersecurity practice at Edith Cowan University, said it might not be helpful to wait for the results of a broad national review before banning TikTok on government devices, as its recommendations were unlikely to include specific countermeasures.
“Given the uncertainty over who has access to data, it is not unreasonable to be cautious about allowing users of government-owned devices to install and use TikTok,” he said, adding that he thought a wholesale ban on the app in Australia was unlikely.
“There are greater risks in us not engaging with TikTok,”
Edward Farrell, Australian security consultant
Edward Farrell, an Australian technical security consultant at Mercury Information Security Service, said TikTok was not any riskier than most other apps.
He had yet to see any incontrovertible evidence that “convinces me outright that exploitation against individual devices is taking place”, he said, adding that users could manage and guard against data collection.
“There are greater risks in us not engaging with TikTok,” Farrell said. “The vacuum that has ensued as a result of the machinery of government as well as members of the public being discouraged from participation leaves only conspiracy theorists and extremists to influence on a platform that currently represents the largest market share of our most vulnerable minds in the country, namely our youth.”
Elsewhere in the region, South Korea has not had much to say about TikTok since it slapped the app with a fine in 2020 for mishandling children’s data with their legal guardians’ consent. In Japan, meanwhile, the chief government spokesman said late last month in response to questions from reporters that cybersecurity measures were in place covering social media, but that products from specific countries were not excluded.
China warned Japan in 2020 that a ban on TikTok would have a “large impact” on bilateral relations, according to Japanese media reports.
Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, project assistant professor at The University of Tokyo’s Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology, said there were growing concerns in Japan about TikTok and other apps possibly handing private information over to the Chinese government.
“Although there have been some discussions at the government and parliamentary levels, there are questions and debates over the nature of restrictions and how to impose them,” he said.
Western capitals’ TikTok bans had certainly put some pressure on Asian countries to think about their positions in the tech and economic domains, said Lee of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, adding that many in the region would be hesitant to follow the US’ lead as they wanted balanced relations with both of the world’s biggest economies.
“Ultimately, the decision of Asian countries to choose sides will depend on a variety of factors, including their individual geopolitical interests and economic considerations,” he said.
“However, it’s clear that the TikTok episode has raised important questions about the role of technology in international relations and will likely continue to shape discussions around the world.”
Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said last month that amid rising great-power rivalry, the island state would not become “a proxy” for any other country and wanted to maintain good relations with both the US and China.
Muhammad Faizal from the RSIS said this extended to TikTok, as a ban similar to those introduced by Western countries would contradict Singapore’s neutral stance.
Asia was diverse, he said, in terms of political values, economic relations and security priorities.
“In this region, China is a security concern but may not be the pre-eminent security concern to the people,” he said. “Ultimately, countries decide what matters most to them domestically.”