A Senate inquiry has called on the Australian Government to consider a ban on popular social messaging platform WeChat for government-issued devices.
Chinese conglomerate Tencent Holdings owns the ‘super-app’. Over a billion people in China and Chinese communities around the world use WeChat.
The inquiry handed down its report this week. Its recommendation comes four months after a similar ban on the Chinese-owned TikTok was announced.
The Senate committee was made up of two Liberal Senators, two Government (Labor) Senators, and one from the Greens.
It was set up last year amid concern about foreign interference on social media being used in “authoritarian countries” to undermine Australia’s democracy.
Chinese social media:
In 2017, national intelligence laws were passed in China, strengthening cooperation between Chinese businesses and the government.
Australia has expressed concern over these laws and how they influence data-sharing by Chinese-owned social media services.
TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was banned from Australian government-issued devices in April. It followed bans in the U.S., UK, Canada, and New Zealand.
Banning WeChat in Australia:
The inquiry found WeChat carried similar security risks to TikTok. As a result, it recommended a potential ban on government devices for the app. This ban wouldn’t apply to personal devices, and wouldn’t stop Australians from using WeChat to speak to friends and family.
The report claimed WeChat provided “disingenuous answers” to written questions put forward by the committee, which they believed showed “contempt” for the inquiry.
WeChat didn’t appear before the committee, either in-person or virtually.
The committee recommended adding a minimum set of transparency requirements for social media platforms to follow in Australia.
The proposal included a requirement for social media companies operating in Australia to have a physical presence on the ground. Disclosures around changes to data-collection practices were also put forward.
Requirements could be enforced with fines, or bans as a last-resort measure.
Banning social media apps in Australia:
Some witnesses warned the committee against bans on specific social media platforms.
This was described as a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach by some witnesses, who believed banned platforms could be replaced by new apps carrying the same foreign interference concerns.
The Greens didn’t support platform-specific bans, such as those proposed for WeChat. They said targeting a platform “based on the country it is linked to” wouldn’t protect national security, or stop “bad actors” from achieving their goals.