TikTok Tells Inquiry China-Based Employees Can Make Changes to Algorithm

By Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark
Victoria Kelly-Clark is an Australian based reporter who focuses on national politics and the geopolitical environment in the Asia-pacific region, the Middle East and Central Asia.
July 18, 2023Updated: July 19, 2023

TikTok officials have admitted to an Australian government inquiry that China-based employees can change the social media app’s algorithm.

This is the first time officials from the company have made the admission, which has raised increasing questions about the reach of the Chinese regime into foreign societies through the app.

Appearing before the Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media Inquiry, TikTok’s Security Officer Will Farrell, under questioning, admitted employees of TikTok based in China could adjust the algorithm.

“They can make changes, which will then go under a security review to make sure those changes are acceptable,” Mr. Farrell said.

Chair of the Committee, Senator James Paterson, said he was not aware of TikTok previously conceding this, which has very real-world implications.

“It means that the long arm of the Chinese state can reach into the heart of the Australian democracy and influence a platform which is an increasing source of news and information about the world for young people,” Senator Paterson told Sky News.

“Now, if they’ve got control over that app, what is on it and also what data it collects on its users. That’s a very powerful tool that they can wield against us, and I’m very concerned about the implications of that for Australians.”

Senator Paterson said that the admission would mean that the inquiry, which is due to deliver its findings on Aug. 1, will have to make some “very tough recommendations to the government about confronting this problem.”

TikTok Looking to Blur CCP Ties

The admission comes after TikTok Australia’s Director of Public Policy Ella Woods-Joyce faced a challenging session before the committee on July 11, with Senator Paterson refusing to let Ms. Woods-Joyce obfuscate the company’s ties to China.

Ms. Woods-Joyce claimed before the committee she was “not aware of the structures in and around ByteDance” or whether it was, in fact, headquartered in China.

“ByteDance has operations around the world … There are offices in China, [but] I don’t know the formal headquarters of the company,” she said.

TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance which publicly acknowledges it is headquartered in Beijing.

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has no official stake in the company, it does hold a one percent stake in its Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, under the sovereign wealth fund, which is also publically available information.

However, Ms. Woods-Joyce initially claimed this was not true.

“No, there is an arrangement with respect to a specific domestic entity … There’s no ownership of the Chinese government or any other in ByteDance or TikTok,” she said.

Senator Paterson said Ms. Woods-Joyce’s refusal to speak openly about the company was of grave concern.

“I asked you a very specific question, this is continued obfuscation from you, and it does not reflect well on the company that you’re not willing to answer direct simple questions,” he said.

“And I have grave concerns about the more substantive questions I’m going to get to if these factual questions can’t be answered directly.”

Governments Concerned Over CCP Control Over TikTok

The senate inquiry comes as governments around the world become more apprehensive about the national security concerns stemming from the app’s access to personal data, which experts argue could be handed over to the CCP under the its National Intelligence Law of 2017.

This has led to 16 countries, including Australia, the UK, the U.S., and the EU, to ban the app from government devices.

However, TikTok officials denied this would ever occur, with Ms. Woods-Joyce stating that the company would not hand over data if asked.

“We have clearly stated on a number of occasions that we have never been asked for that user data, and we would not provide it if we were asked,” Ms. Woods-Joyce said.

However, Senator Paterson noted that under the National Intelligence Law, any Chinese employee of TikTok who was asked to access Australian user data would be obligated to keep the request quiet due to the “strict confidentiality requirements that are imposed on individuals who are assisting the work of intelligence agencies.”

“If an employee, just say an engineer working on the TikTok app who has access to Australian user data was, as you’ve agreed, subject to this law, approached by an intelligence agency and asked to provide it and was compelled to be silent about it, how on earth would you or anyone else in TikTok Australia know about it?” he said.