Australian Senate committee recommends bans on Chinese social media apps

WeChat accused of 'contempt for Parliament' as transparency rules floated for platforms

An Australian Senate Committee has recommended banning Chinese social media apps in the land down under, on grounds the Communist Party of China uses them to spread propaganda and misinformation.

The Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media yesterday filed its final report [PDF] which outlines the reason the committee convened: social media has become the public square in which policy debate tales place, but "is increasingly being weaponized to spread disinformation to deliberately mislead or obscure the truth for malicious or deceptive purposes." Plenty of that disinformation comes from foreign powers, "as part of a broader, integrated strategic campaign to advance their own national interests at Australia's expense."

Such campaigns, the document surmises, aim to:

  • Gather intelligence on individuals that can be used to target them;
  • Gather behavioral data by population or cohort that can be used to improve interference and influence campaigns;
  • Harass Australia's diaspora communities; and
  • Spread misinformation or disinformation with the intent to:
    • Achieve a specific outcome within Australia's political system;
    • Manipulate community discourse and understanding about an issue; or
    • Spread chaos and seed distrust in Australia's democratic systems.

The report names China and Russia as among the nations conducting such campaigns.

The Committee's main call to action is for social networks – all of 'em – to be bound by legislated transparency standards that are enforceable with fines, with the potential for bans for platforms that repeatedly fail to meet the standards.

The requirements would include operating an Australian presence, proactively labelling state affiliated media, and disclosing any government directions they receive about content (subject to national security consideration).

The requirement to have a local presence is likely a response to Chinese outfit WeChat's failure to appear before the committee.

"WeChat showed its contempt for the Parliament by failing to appear before the committee at all, and through its disingenuous answers to questions in writing," the report states. "This stood in contrast to the more constructive engagement of platforms based in Western countries who at least recognized the fundamental importance of the checks and balances inherent in democratic systems."

TikTok was also lashed, with a finding that it "engaged in a determined effort to obfuscate and avoid answering the most basic questions about the platform, its parent company ByteDance and its relationship to the Chinese Communist Party."

The proposed transparency requirements would also require disclosure of "cyber-enabled foreign interference activity, including transnational repression and surveillance originating from foreign authoritarian governments."

Another recommendation calls for social media outfits to "make their platform open to independent cyber analysts and researchers to examine cyber-enabled foreign interference activities." The report also calls for disclosure of "which countries they have employees operating in who could access Australian data and keeps auditable logs of any instance of Australian data being transmitted, stored or accessed offshore."

There's also a call for social media to "maintain a public library of advertisements on their platform."

The suggested transparency requirements would apply to all social media platforms – meaning the likes of WeChat would need to have a local office while Elon Musk's X would also need to return.

The report also recommends consideration of banning WeChat from running on government devices, using the same mechanisms that were used to ban TikTok. The committee also liked the idea of an ongoing effort to assess the security risks posed by TikTok and WeChat, and any future apps.

Another recommendation is for Australia to support independent and professional foreign-language journalism so that diaspora communities have more trusted sources of news. That recommendation touches on a sensitive point: Australia is a multicultural nation and diaspora communities gravitate to platforms that are popular in their countries of origin or heritage. Banning apps is therefore a harsh action, as it cuts Australians off from family and friends. Education and fostering alternative information sources is seen as an alternative approach, to ensure authoritarian states' disinformation campaigns are less potent.

Yet the report also notes that social media campaigns are by their very nature asymmetric: authoritarian states don't allow free speech at home, but take advantage of it elsewhere.

The committee was comprised of two members from the governing Labor party, two from the opposition, and one from the Australian Greens – meaning it represented a broad spectrum of political views and was not partisan.

For now, its recommendations are just that. But Australia's politicians, regardless of who occupies the government benches, have in recent years shown a willingness to pass plenty of cyber security legislation. ®

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