Thursday, 4 August 2022
Foreign Interference through Social Media: Select Committee; Report
That the Senate take note of the report.
In December 2021, the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media handed down its first interim report, and I want to commend the work of its 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 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 an entity would continue to grow in importance as the use of the 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. 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. 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. I hope that the Senate does agree to re-establish it. I note for the record that in the previous parliament it was chaired by an opposition senator and that the deputy chair was a government senator. 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.
The particular reason why I think it is necessary for this committee to continue is that there have been significant developments in this space since the committee handed down its interim report, which it acknowledged was not complete. That's particularly in relation to one social media company, TikTok, which made a submission, 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 know about this now because of a leaked report from a whistleblower to BuzzFeed News which exposed this practice on 17 June. 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 3 July. They replied to my letter on 12 July, acknowledging that, yes, it is the case that Australian TikTok user data is accessible in mainland China. This is important because all Chinese companies and 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 China's intelligence agencies in the national interest, if required, and to keep that cooperation secret. So it does raise concerns that it's possible that Australian user data has fallen already, or could fall in the future, into the hands of the Chinese government.
I wrote to the cybersecurity minister, Ms O'Neil, on 13 July, encouraging her to take up all possible regulatory options in addressing the problem. And in more recent days we've had reports from the cybersecurity company Internet 2.0 which demonstrates the enormous breadth of data collected by this app. We've had a recognition by the independent Australian Information Commissioner that this is a serious issue which 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 the regulatory options. The opposition stands ready to support the government, should they propose any proactive steps to protect the seven million Australian users of TikTok.
I also think it is time that the parliament considers re-establishing the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, as recommended by the now assistant minister, Senator McAllister. I look forward to working with all members in the chamber to ensure these important cybersecurity 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 the job of the minister to take action. I hope they take action on this very serious national security issue.
Question agreed to.