Joint media release
Senator the Hon Sarah Henderson, Shadow Minister for Communications
Julian Leeser MP, Shadow Attorney-General
Senator James Paterson, Shadow Minister for Cyber Security and Countering Foreign Interference
The Albanese Government is to be condemned for its failure to strengthen online privacy and data protection laws as new threats emerge for Australian WeChat users.
The Opposition has been contacted by a WeChat account holder who has expressed alarm that the owner’s account has been partially disabled because the owner declined to transfer data to WeChat’s servers on China’s mainland.
Two days ago, the account owner received a notice requesting authorisation to “Enable Weixin (WeChat in Chinese language) Services” which would result in “personal information … your likes, comments, views, search queries, uploaded content will be processes by Weixin’s services in China’s Mainland for the sole purpose of providing the enabled Weixin service(s).”
The account owner, who declined to consent to the data transfer, then discovered that while messaging friends was enabled, it was not possible to click on links to video and other content without first enabling Weixin services. This shows that at least some WeChat users are effectively being coerced into agreeing to even more tracking from China which is extremely concerning.
Owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent with reportedly 690,000 daily active users in Australia, the super-app is an important communications tool amongst Chinese Australians; however, there are increasing concerns that WeChat is involved in censorship, surveillance and information control including the spreading of disinformation.
Following concerns raised by the Opposition that TikTok is harvesting the data of Australia users which can be accessed in China, this latest attempt to subvert the privacy and security of Australian WeChat users is alarming.
On 22 July 2022, Senator Henderson and Mr Julian Leeser called on the government to investigate all regulatory options to protect Australians’ data and personal information including legislating the Coalition’s proposed online privacy laws. On 13 July 2022, Senator Paterson wrote to Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security, Clare O’Neil, urging the government to consider all options to protect Australian users on high-risk platforms like TikTok.
While the Home Affairs Minister has announced a review into data security issues including data harvesting involving TikTok, WeChat and other digital platforms, Labor’s Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has vacated the field on this critical issue.
While all regulatory options must be on the table as the Opposition has made clear, there are vital improvements to online privacy which can and must be enacted immediately.
The privacy and safety of Australians online is critical. The Coalition’s Online Privacy Bill contains important privacy protections including requiring fully informed consent to use personal information, parental consent for social media users aged under 16 and tough penalties for non-compliance. By continuing to sit on its hands, the Albanese Government is putting Australians’ online privacy at risk.
5 September 2022
In addition to committing to tougher social media privacy laws, the Coalition when in government:
– passed the Online Safety Act and established the world’s first eSafety Commissioner;
– forced social media companies to remove cyber-bullying, cyber abuse and image based abuse;
– led global action to make social media companies more accountable over terrorist and violent content online;
– committed to introduce new laws to unmask anonymous trolls which were opposed by Labor; and
– implemented the News Media Bargaining Code to force the big tech platforms to pay for Australian media content.
Following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal and in recognition of the new challenges to the protection of individuals’ privacy in the digital age, in 2019 the Coalition committed to strengthen privacy protections by introducing a binding code of practice for social media and other online platforms.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms July 2019 report reinforced the importance of the then government’s commitment to develop a privacy code for digital platforms and enhance penalties and enforcement measures.
The Coalition’s Privacy Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Online Privacy and Other Measures) Bill 2021 (Online Privacy Bill) proposed that social media and other online platforms would be required to:
– take all reasonable steps to verify their users’ age;
– consider the best interest of the child when handling the personal information of children including obtaining parental consent for users under the age of 16; and
– obtain fully informed consent to use personal information; and
– cease using or disclosing personal information upon request.
The Online Privacy Bill also proposed tougher penalties and enforcement powers including penalties of up to $10 million for companies which engaged in serious and repeated interferences with privacy.