Online foreign interference probe resurrected

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Senate has voted to establish a new foreign interference through social media inquiry amid growing scrutiny of the platforms. A similar inquiry in the previous Parliament called for more transparency and protections but was cut short before delivering a full final report.

On Thursday, the Senate agreed to Liberal Senator James Patterson’s motion to resurrect the select committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media. It will inquire into and report on the “risk posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media”.

Mr Patterson, a former chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, has repeatedly warned about the risks posed by foreign-owned internet companies, particularly TikTok.

TikTok social media
The Senate has resurrected the foreign interference inquiry it could not finish last Parliament to scrutinise foreign-owned apps like TikTok

He said the new inquiry will examine the activities of a range of social media companies but the companies headquartered in authoritarian countries pose a “unique risk to the national security of Australia”.

The inquiry will submit a final report by August next year.

The previous Parliament’s Foreign Interference through Social Media inquiry did not complete a final report as intended because of the prorogation of Parliament and the election. It instead called for its reestablishment and urged the government to implement the recommendations from inquiry’s interim report.

In the interim report, the bipartisan committee warned it is “possible, if not likely” that Australia will face a large-scale, coordinated attempt at foreign interference on social media, and significant action was needed to mitigate this risk.

It recommended the government clearly delegate lead accountability for cyber-enabled foreign interference to a single entity in government, establish “appropriate, transparent and non-political institutional mechanisms” for dealing with interference in elections and direct the Election Integrity Assurance Taskforce to undertake an audit to assess capability relevant to assessing disinformation before elections.

A formal government response was not provided.

More recently, Chinese-owned TikTok has been scrutinised by both Mr Patterson and the Attorney General after the company confirmed its China-based employees had access to certain information about foreign users. Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil has also ordered her department to investigate the harvesting of data by TikTok and provide a briefing by early next year on possible sector-wide responses.

TikTok is fast becoming the most popular social media app in the country, and is now used by around 7 million Australians.

But Australia has been grappling with foreign owned internet companies’ influence for several years.

In 2018, the Turnbull Government established a multi-agency Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce to address risks to the integrity of the electoral system — particularly in relation to cyber interference.

The taskforce advised government agencies in July it did not identify any foreign interference, or any other interference, that compromised the delivery of the 2022 federal election.

The Attorney General’s Department also operates a law-backed Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. Also introduced in 2018 by the Turnbull government and modelled on American Foreign Agents Registration laws, the scheme requires people acting on behalf of a foreign principal to register their activities.

Mr Patterson said the 2018 reforms, which also included new foreign interference offences added to the Criminal Code, were world-leading, but cyber-enabled foreign interference posed a “unique challenge which requires further reforms”.

“Recent reports from Iranian diaspora communities of targeted online harassment, Russian state-backed disinformation campaigns about the invasion of Ukraine, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s research exposing intimidation of activists and journalists working on Chinese human rights issues, demonstrate this is an ongoing problem which must be addressed,” Mr Patterson said in a statement.

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