Legislated standards urged for social media

August 2, 2023

Max Mason
The Australian Financial Review
Wednesday 2 August 2023

Social media companies should be required to meet legislated minimum transparency standards – including where employees who can access user data are located, disclosure of foreign interference on the platforms, and being clear about censored or taken down content, a Senate committee recommends.

Social media companies that failed the transparency tests should face fines and potential bans by the home affairs minister, the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media recommended in its report to parliament on Tuesday.

The minimum transparency requirements recommended by the committee include requiring an Australian presence, proactively labelling state-affiliated media, disclosing any directions from governments and disclosing foreign interference, including surveillance and repression.

They include disclosing any takedown of co-ordinated foreign interference networks and how they were identified, disclosing changes to data collection or security policies, making platforms open to independent cyber analysts to examine foreign interference, disclosing where any employee who can access Australian user data is located and logging access and storage location, maintain public libraries of ads.

TikTok admitted last year that Australian user data could be accessed by staff in mainland China in a letter, which was revealed by The Australian Financial Review, to Liberal senator and committee chairman James Paterson.

“Where authoritarian regimes rely on secrecy and deception to advance their national interests on social media, Australia should rely on openness and transparency to secure our own,” said Mr Paterson, the Opposition home affairs spokesman.

“That’s why the committee has recommended a range of enforceable transparency standards to both expose the clandestine conduct of authoritarian regimes online, and to empower and protect the freedoms of Australian social media users, recognising that not all social media platforms are the same.”

The committee also recommended that if the US government follows through with its threat to force Chinese technology giant ByteDance to divest TikTok, Australia should do the same. And the government should take advice on whether to ban Chinese app WeChat on all government devices and force all social media firms that operate in Australia to have a local presence to make sure there is legal jurisdiction.

In April, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus issued a directive to ban TikTok on government-issued devices, amid fears about data security. In the same month, the Biden administration ordered Chinese shareholders to sell their shares or risk a ban.

“The committee recognised the unique national security risks posed by social media companies like TikTok and WeChat, whose parent companies ByteDance and Tencent and the majority of their employees are irrefutably headquartered in authoritarian countries like China, and are therefore beholden to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law,” Mr Paterson said.

“Throughout the inquiry, authoritarian-based companies were reluctant to co-operate with Australian parliamentary process. WeChat repeatedly refused to participate in public hearings on the basis that, despite its significant online presence, it does not have a physical presence in Australia.”

TikTok Australia and New Zealand director of public policy Ella Woods-Joyce said the company disagreed with some of the characterisations and statements made regarding its company.

“[However] on our initial reading, we welcome the fact that the committee has not recommended a ban. We are also encouraged that recommendations largely appear to apply equally to all platforms. TikTok remains committed to continuing an open and transparent dialogue with all levels of Australian government.”

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