New Zealand won't ban TikTok like Australia or the US. Here's why

Credit: Original article can be found here

ANALYSIS: New Zealand isn’t going to ban TikTok. Not anytime soon, at least.

Talk of banning the video-sharing social media platform has become fashionable in Western capitals. Not quite as popular as the app itself, with its estimated more than 1 billion users across the globe, but the bans of the Chinese-owned app are spreading.

The United States and Canada ordered TikTok to be wiped off government-owned devices earlier in last month, and the White House has since been talking of a US-wide ban. Across the Tasman, the Australian Government is expected to announce TikTok ban for government devices in the coming days – though it appears nationwide ban is off the cards.

In New Zealand, there’s a different approach. And it’s not because the same concerns – TikTok being a privacy nightmare within Beijing’s grasp during a technology Cold War between the West and China – don’t apply.

* Sceptical US lawmakers grill TikTok CEO over safety
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It’s for the same reason the Government didn’t outright ban Huawei in 2019, and for the same reason – as Stuff reported on Friday – it’s quietly considering new foreign interference crimes, instead of taking the noisy Australian approach.

The Government doesn’t want to piss off its largest economic partner, China. So it treads softly.

Hence, the patchwork response to TikTok. The Defence Force has ordered all personnel to wipe TikTok off its devices. Many agencies have not authorised the use of TikTok on devices, others tightly-control it on phones “isolated” from their networks, and many lower-risk departments don’t have a policy about it. MPs were told to wipe it from parliament-owned devices last week.

Politicians beware: TikTok has been ordered off parliament-owned devices, due to the risk the app poses.

Stuff and Getty

Politicians beware: TikTok has been ordered off parliament-owned devices, due to the risk the app poses.

You could be forgiven for thinking the clock had been wound back to 2019, when the same debate was being had about Huawei.

Back then, as the United Kingdom contemplated a ban of the Chinese telco’s hardware, Intelligence Agencies Minister Andrew Little said under New Zealand’s law it wasn’t about banning hardware but assessing it on a case-by-case basis. The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) blocked Huawei equipment from being used on the Spark network due to national security risks, effectively ending the discussion.

In February, Little said New Zealand lacked the legal mechanism to affect a ban of TikTok across government devices. Instead, the GCSB provides advice to government agencies about the use of TikTok – quietly suggesting how it should be handled.

This approach may be adequate in New Zealand, which doesn’t have a sprawling federal system that makes it much harder to mitigate risk. It also avoids headlines with the words “New Zealand”, “ban”, and “China” – reducing the risk China responds angrily. Again, look across the Tasman and you can see what officials in Wellington fear.

Intelligence Agencies Minister Andrew Little says the Government can’t ban TikTok from its devices.


Intelligence Agencies Minister Andrew Little says the Government can’t ban TikTok from its devices.

The same logic has been applied to prospective changes to foreign interference laws. As strategic studies professor Robert Ayson put it, New Zealand’s approach is about using or quietly tweaking existing legislation, not making a “big song and dance”.

An outright ban of TikTok, as being mooted by the White House, is an even more remote prospect in New Zealand.

The Biden administration has reportedly told ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, to sell up or face shut down in the US. The Chinese government has in turn raised the stakes and said it would oppose the sale.

There is hypocrisy at play. TikTok is itself based in California, as are US social media giants Facebook and Instagram, for instance, platforms which similarly data harvest and are only lightly-regulated despite their known corrosive effect on democracy.

There is concern about the breadth of data that TikTok collects, but really it’s the proximity to the increasingly authoritarian Chinese government that has gripped US lawmakers. No company in China is out of reach of the Chinese Communist Party.

This concern underlies the assessments of TikTok’s risk in New Zealand. But there’s little chance that concern will reach the threshold where it is wiped from Kiwi phones. It would simply too unpopular a move, both with the TikTok-ing public and China.

For it to reach such a threshold, it would require further deterioration of West-China relations that could be years away.

Until then, it’s the same buyer-beware warning that applies to all social media platforms: you’re making a trade-off when you use it, your privacy for the product.