Senate committee wants foreign interference social media reporting rules by next Australian election

A Senate Select Committee received testimony prior to the new year that both government and social media platforms are unsure of how to go about reporting foreign interference on social media platforms.

An Australian Senate Committee at the end of last year recommended that a government entity be specifically delegated with the responsibility of keeping social media platforms and other government entities accountable in preventing cyber-enabled foreign interference.

In an interim report [PDF], the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media said it made this recommendation as there is currently not a single body dedicated to performing this accountability function. The committee said the need for such an entity would continue to grow in importance as the use of cyber-enabled techniques to interfere in foreign elections and referendums has increased significantly in recent years.

In making this finding, the committee considered submissions that said current trends indicated espionage and foreign interference would supplant terrorism as Australia's principal security concern over the next five years.

Another factor in making this recommendation was that there is currently no specific body responsible for combatting COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation.

Alarmingly, the committee also wrote in its interim report that the Department of Home Affairs -- the supposed policy lead for addressing foreign interference on social media -- testified it was not aware which platforms were supposed to report foreign interference attempts.

Social media companies also told the committee similar things, saying they have experienced confusion when trying to decipher how and who to report to when it comes to foreign interference residing on their platforms.

"Given the impending Federal Election, it is imperative that the government establish clear policies and procedures for social media platforms to refer potential foreign interference for consideration by the relevant government departments or entities," the report said.

As such, in addition to appointing a government entity to be accountable for cyber-enabled foreign interference, the committee has also recommended that the federal government establish clear requirements and pathways for social media platforms to report suspected foreign interference, including disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and other offensive and harmful content.

It also recommended for agency remits, powers, and resourcing arrangements regarding these reporting requirements to be formalised.

The committee also called for more transparency regarding the extent of government's awareness about online disinformation and misinformation.

To address the lack of transparency, the committee has made the recommendation for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the Election Integrity Assurance Taskforce (EIAT) to publicly release their findings and responsibilities in relation to foreign interference through social media platforms.

Currently, ACMA files a report to government about the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, which covers the adequacy of digital platforms' measures and the broader impacts of misinformation in Australia, but that information is not available for public viewing.

Meanwhile, there is "no certainty" around the responsibilities and powers of EIAT members, which the committee warned could create vulnerabilities in Australia's institutional arrangements that malign foreign actors could exploit.

"Although the members can articulate their qualifications to be on the [EIAT] (for example, the Department of Communications is an expert on the social media platforms), there is no certainty about what their responsibilities and powers are, let alone the powers of others. The taskforce is governed by terms of reference have been kept secret to this committee and the public at large," the committee wrote in the interim report

The interim report comes off the heels of Australia announcing various initiatives in recent months to address issues residing in social media platforms and cyber. In December alone, Australia announced the Online Safety Youth Advisory Council, passed "Magnitsky-style" and Critical Infrastructure cyber attack laws, and proposed anti-trolling laws

Meanwhile, in October, the federal government released an exposure draft for what it has labelled an Online Privacy Bill to make it mandatory for social media organisations to verify users' age.

Another senate committee recently received an update regarding the Online Privacy Bill during Budget Estimates, with Australia's information commissioner saying it would receive AU$25 million of funding across three years to facilitate timely responses to privacy complaints as part of work on the aforementioned Bill.

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