Social media companies should meet a set of transparency requirements and disclose censorship and foreign interference activities or face the possibility of being banned, a senate committee has recommended to the government.
The Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media handed down its final report on Tuesday evening, making 17 recommendations to the government on how to mitigate against other countries using social media as “a vector for foreign interference”.
Its first recommendation is for the government to impose on large social platforms “a minimum set of transparency requirements, enforceable with fines”.
Platforms that repeatedly breach those requirements, the committee recommended, should then be banned “as a last resort”.
The committee suggested a list of minimum transparency requirements, some of which are covered by the Digital Industry Group’s (DIGI) existing voluntary Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation.
Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Redbubble, TikTok and Twitter have already signed onto that code of practice which requires their commitment to seven objectives around combatting mis- and disinformation, including through annual transparency reports.
The DIGI code will likely form the basis of the Australian Communication and Media Authority’s (ACMA) mandated code of conduct under proposed legislation that would see the media watchdog take a more active role in governing how social media companies behave in Australia.
Government senators Jess Walsh and Raff Ciccone responded to the committee’s findings in a statement attached to the report, saying the government welcomed “the committee’s core focus on transparency measures”.
Walsh and Ciccone said the government would consider how the recommended transparency requirements might become a feature of the forthcoming mandatory industry code, noting the suggestions that platforms have: an Australian presence; label state-affiliated media; disclose “instances of transnational repression”; and offer more transparency about how they remove “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” as being particularly relevant.
Banning is a ‘whack-a-mole approach’
However, they also batted back the recommended “last resort” ban idea as being unsupported by evidence given to the committee.
The government senators echoed sentiments that a ban would be “a whack-a-mole approach”, and noted “concerns about whether bans can be practically implemented, and the implications for users on these platforms”.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday morning, committee chair James Patterson said he wanted to keep the option of banning social media platforms “on the table”.
“If we don’t, then social media platforms won’t be motivated to comply with the other more reasonable requests that we’re making.”
The proposed mis- and disinformation legislation includes fines of up to two per cent of annual turnover for failing to comply with a mandatory industry code of conduct.
But Patterson thinks the prospect of large fines doesn’t go far enough, saying social media companies “have to understand there are serious consequences for them for non-compliance”.
“At the moment they've demonstrated, including during this inquiry, that they don't regard Australian law, Australian oversight of their companies as something that they have to really worry about at all.”
Patterson went on to specifically call out Chinese-owned WeChat – which opted not to send representatives to the senate committee in a move its report described as showing “contempt for the parliament” – and TikTok whose executives did appear in front of the committee last month, though in a manner the chair described as “totally perfunctory”.
The notion of banning WeChat has been criticised by people from Australia’s large Chinese community, including Professor Wanning Sun from the University of Technology Sydney who has described the app as “a necessity – not a choice” for the Chinese diaspora, and said a ban would “do more harm than good”.