Senator Paterson speaks to the Senate on TikTok and foreign interference through social media

August 4, 2022

Thursday 4 August 2022

Senate speech

Subjects: TikTok, Senate Select Committee into Foreign Interference through Social Media


I rise to take note of the foreign interference through Social Media Select Committee – Progress Report.


In December 2021, the committee handed down its first interim report, and I want to commend the work of the Chair in the previous Parliament, Senator McAllister and the Deputy Chair, Senator Molan, for the work of the Committee.


In the interim report, the Committee recognised the risk of platforms being used to spread misinformation and disinformation, and they recommended that a single body should be established that is dedicated to keeping social media platforms and other government entities accountable in preventing cyber-enabled foreign interference. The committee said the need for such an entity would continue to grow in importance as the use of cyber-enabled technologies to interfere in foreign elections and referendums had increased significantly in recent years.


The committee also issued a further progress report in April 2022, and in that report it noted that it had not yet completed its work nor its final inquiry report as it had intended due to the Parliament proroguing the Committee. The Chair, Senator McAllister, made a recommendation that the Senate consider re-establishing the committee in this new Parliament, and I want to add my support to that call from Senator McAllister in the previous Parliament. I agree that there is important work for this Senate Select Committee to continue to do in this Parliament, and I hope that the Senate does agree to re-establish it. I note for the record, in the previous Parliament it was chaired by an opposition senator and the deputy chair was a government senator. And I hope that if the Senate agrees to re-establish it, that it should again be chaired by an Opposition Senator, with the deputy chair being from the Government.


In particular, the reason why I think it is necessary for this committee to continue its work is there's been significant developments in this space since the committee handed down its interim report, which it acknowledged was not complete.


And that is in particular in relation to one social media company, TikTok, who made a submission and appeared before the committee and gave evidence to it. In its submission and in its appearance before the committee, TikTok assured the Parliament and through the Parliament, the Australian people, that the data of Australian users on their platform was safe because it was ultimately stored in the United States and Singapore. What they did not highlight was that that data, although it was stored in the United States and Singapore, is accessible in mainland China and had been repeatedly accessed in mainland China.


We only now know about this because of a leaked report from a whistleblower to BuzzFeed News, which exposed this practice, on 17th of June. And following that I wrote to TikTok Australia to seek clarification about their evidence before the committee and to ask them whether or not this practice, which had been identified by BuzzFeed in the United States, had also taken place in Australia. I did so on the 3rd of July and they replied to my letter on the 12th of July acknowledging yes, it is the case that Australian TikTok user data is accessible in mainland China.


Now this is important because Chinese companies, all Chinese companies, individuals, are subject to a whole suite of national security legislation in China, in particular the 2017 National Intelligence Law, which requires all entities and individuals to cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies in the national interest if required, and to keep that cooperation secret. So it does raise concerns that it is possible that Australian user data has fallen already or could fall in the future into the hands of the Chinese government.


I've written to the Cyber Security Minister, Ms. O'Neil, on the 13th of July, encouraging her to take up all possible regulatory options in addressing this problem.


And in more recent days, we've had reports from the cyber security company, Internet 2.0, which demonstrates the enormous breadth of data collected by this app. We've had reports, we've had a recognition by the independent Australian Information Commissioner that this is a serious issue that they will investigate in relation to TikTok. And just this morning, Max Mason of the Financial Review, who has followed this issue particularly closely, reported that members of parliament have been warned that they need to have a second phone if they are using social media apps like TikTok. This follows reports in recent days from New Zealand that its MPs have been warned not to use TikTok on their personal accounts.


So, I'd like to see the Government investigate all regulatory options and the Opposition stands ready to support the Government should they propose any proactive steps to protect the 7 million Australian users of TikTok. I also think it is time that the Parliament consider re-establishing the Senate Select Committee into Foreign Interference through Social Media, as recommended by the now Assistant Minister, Senator McAllister. And I look forward to working with all members of the chamber to ensure these important cyber security and privacy issues are dealt with.


Unfortunately, so far, all we have had from the government is a comment by the minister that she is concerned about these developments and she hopes other Australians are also concerned. It is not the job of the Minister simply to be a commentator. It is a job of the Minister to take action, and I hope they take action on this very serious national security issue.




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