WeChat in line for ban: inquiry

August 2, 2023

Matthew Knott
The Sydney Morning Herald
Wednesday 2 August 2023

The federal government should have the power to fine and ban social media platforms that fail to meet transparency standards and should consider banning the Chinese-owned messaging app WeChat from government devices as it did for TikTok, a bipartisan Senate inquiry has found.

In a report that damns TikTok for failing to answer basic questions about its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, the inquiry calls for Australia to consider forcing the popular video sharing app to be sold to a non-Chinese company if the US government makes such a move.

The Senate inquiry into foreign interference through social media also called for all social media companies to be required to maintain a physical presence in Australia and to label all content by state-affiliated media entities.

Despite considering calls for blanket bans on Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok and WeChat, the committee ultimately decided that greater transparency requirements were the best way to combat foreign interference.

Labor and Greens senators particularly opposed the idea of bans on specific platforms, describing it as a “whack-a-mole approach” that would fail to deter the threat of foreign interference.

In their final report, the Coalition, Labor and Greens senators said they were “gravely concerned that the information Australians receive on these platforms is being influenced by directions from foreign authoritarian governments”.

“Foreign interference through social media is a real, pervasive and growing threat,” their report states.

Committee chair, Liberal senator James Paterson, said members were “particularly concerned by the unique national security risks” posed by TikTok and WeChat given their parent companies are headquartered in China.

“China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law means the Chinese government can compel these companies to secretly cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies,” Paterson said.

“The Committee heard that TikTok’s China-based employees can and have accessed Australian user data, and could even manipulate algorithms dictating what Australian users see on the platform.”

The committee found that WeChat, a messaging app that is used by an estimated half of all Chinese-Australians, “comprehensively failed the transparency test” by refusing to participate in public hearings on the basis that it has no physical presence or employees in Australia.

“The committee therefore recommends that, as part of a suite of transparency requirements, social media companies that operate in Australia be required to establish a physical presence within Australia’s legal jurisdiction so that they can be held accountable to our laws,” the report states.

In April, the government banned the use of TikTok on politicians’ and public servants’ work phones, citing “significant security and privacy risks”.

The report states that WeChat, whose parent company Tencent is headquartered in Shenzhen, “poses a similar data security risk to TikTok” and should be added to the ban, with only case-by-case exemptions made.

The committee found that TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is based in Beijing, “engaged in a determined effort to obfuscate and avoid answering basic questions about the platform, its parent company, and its relationship to the Chinese Communist Party”.

“Companies that repeatedly fail to meet minimum transparency requirements should be fined and, as a last resort, may be banned by the Minister for Home Affairs, with appropriate oversight mechanisms in place,” the report recommends.

“Should the US government take action to force ByteDance to divest ownership of TikTok to another company that is not beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, Australia should look to do the same.”

The report states that the government’s ban on the use of TikTok on government devices should be extended to government contractors and workers in critical infrastructure assets such as airports, electricity providers and banks.

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