National Security

Foreign companies vying for data must operate on our terms

July 10, 2023

Senator James Paterson
The Australian
Monday 10 July 2023

We cannot allow foreign authoritarian regimes to have unregulated access to millions of Australians’ devices and the powerful opportunity that offers them to influence our democracy.

The rise of social media means the world is more connected than ever before. The frictionless nature and near-infinite scale of social media platforms has allowed real-time engagement with millions of other people, no matter where you are in the world. In some ways it has become the new town square – a place where ordinary citizens can contribute to public debate, and in the political sphere, hold our elected officials to account.

But social media, as with all technologies, is a double-edged sword.

The ubiquitous nature of social media, combined with the consolidation of users across a small number of platforms, means that a handful of major companies now have outsized influence on the nature of civil discourse in Australia.

While these platforms have liberalised the way we communicate, bad actors – especially foreign authoritarian states – can exploit the speed and potency of social media to covertly undermine our democracy. Foreign interference campaigns seek to erode trust in our democratic institutions, establish narratives that favour the interests of perpetrating state, and make it difficult for the casual observer to separate truth from fiction.

These are not theoretical concerns. Russia has notoriously attempted to meddle in US elections, with US intelligence agencies assessing that the Russian Government was behind a number of online influence activities designed to undermine public trust in the electoral processes and exacerbate social divisions.

Social media platforms headquartered in China, such as TikTok and WeChat, pose a unique and ever greater risk to our democracy because they are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, which operates without the oversight and transparency mechanisms we have in rule-of-law democracies. China’s national intelligence laws means these companies and their employees are required to secretly co-operate with Chinese intelligence agencies.

Confronting this problem is no easy task. It will require a concerted effort from governments, citizens, and, crucially, the social media platforms on which this conduct is taking place.

The Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media will hold its second round of public hearings this week, where we will probe social media platforms on what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in Australia’s democracy from taking place on their platforms.

After a series of evasive and contradictory statements, it’s time for TikTok to come clean on the massive amounts of data it is harvesting from Australians, what data it is collecting on Australians, where this data is stored, and who has access to this data. TikTok needs to account for shocking revelations that its employees used the application to spy on US journalists, and reports that TikTok is complicit in the censorship of human rights abuses such as those against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region of China.

TikTok also needs to declare the true nature of the relationship between its parent company ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party, and answer important questions about how TikTok is being used as a vehicle for propaganda on behalf of the Chinese Government.

Perhaps more concerning is the refusal of Chinese-owned social media app WeChat to appear before the Committee after being invited on four separate occasions. This comes after the Committee heard evidence from US academic Seth Kaplan, who advocated for a ban of the application and testified that “everything that we fear about what TikTok may become already is occurring on WeChat. Narratives are managed, information is managed, dissenting views are demoted or eliminated”.

The Committee also heard disturbing allegations that WeChat has been used to intimidate and harass Chinese-Australian human rights activists – and their families overseas – in an apparent campaign to stifle their freedom of expression. WeChat’s refusal to appear to address these concerns is telling, and speaks volumes about the company’s attitude towards transparency and compliance with Australian law.

Twitter needs to address claims that Elon Musk’s takeover has created a more permissive environment for mis and disinformation, including alarming reports that Twitter is no longer taking steps to limit the reach of Chinese and Russian state-controlled media outlets.

The Committee will also hear from Meta, Google, YouTube and LinkedIn on the steps they are taking to combat state-sponsored misinformation and disinformation, protect their users from coercion; espionage; and abuse, and ensure these platforms are not used to undermine Australia’s democratic processes and institutions.

In this dangerous and uncertain strategic environment, Australians have a right to know what social media companies are doing with their data and the risks associated with using these platforms.

We cannot allow foreign authoritarian regimes to have unregulated access to millions of Australians’ devices and the powerful opportunity that offers them to influence our democracy. This would be risky in peacetime. But with forecasts that state-on-state conflict in our region is more likely than it has been in generations, it is downright irresponsible.

Any company vying for our data and attention must operate on our terms in line with our values.

The work starts today to hold social media companies to account and ensure they are pulling their weight to make Australia a harder target for foreign interference.

Senator James Paterson is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security and Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media

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