The Australian government is resisting a blanket ban on WeChat despite restrictions from multiple departments

The Australian government is resisting a ban on WeChat on government devices despite many government departments instituting their own bans after TikTok’s edict earlier this month.

TikTok was banned from government devices in early April over data collection and security concerns related to the Chinese government.

The move followed a review by the Home Affairs Department that looked into a number of social media platforms, but TikTok was the only app singled out for an immediate ban. By the time TikTok was banned, dozens of federal departments had already banned the app.

Related: TikTok’s data collection could reveal which floor a user is on, says a cybersecurity firm

Guardian Australia has confirmed that several federal departments have already instituted restrictions on WeChat, a communication app developed by Chinese company Tencent. They include the Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Health and the Department of Infrastructure, Transportation, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

Asked why the ban has not been extended to WeChat, a spokesman for the attorney general’s department – which issued the ban on TikTok – said the government would continue to evaluate all “technologies that could pose a problem for security and will take further action if necessary. .

Dr Seth Kaplan, a lecturer in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told a parliamentary committee hearing last week that “everything we fear about what TikTok could become is already happening on WeChat.”

WeChat operates outside of China primarily for Chinese diaspora communities. It is the third most used social media app by Chinese-Australians (47% of respondents), right behind YouTube and Facebook, according to a Lowy Institute report released last year.

Many Chinese-Australians get their news from the app, with the report finding 75% of those who often use or sometimes get their news via WeChat, although this was down 11% from the 2021 study. The company reported that it had 690,000 daily active users in Australia in 2020.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said she deleted her WeChat account along with her TikTok account late last year.

Kaplan told the committee he listens WeChat is “basically a storytelling machine for the CCP” and this has had flow effects for Chinese-language media in Australia.

“Because WeChat is so ubiquitous… it affects everything not on WeChat involving news and information – and also media that is not directly controlled by the party,” he said.

“It basically means that instead of your democracy being a debate between the people who live in the country, there is one more voice playing a major part in the conversation. And that voice is controlled by a foreign government that doesn’t have your best interests at heart.”

However, Xueyin Zha, a researcher in global governance of advanced technology at the Australian National University, said surveillance and censorship on WeChat outside of China was less conspicuous than its Chinese counterpart, but was still something users they had to consider.

Related: TikTok must cede Chinese ownership or face ban, FCC commissioner told Australian inquiry

Zha said WeChat was an important app for Chinese-Australians to communicate with each other and with family in China, and suggested that part of the reason it wasn’t banned was because it was a crucial tool for politicians to reach the Chinese-Australians.

“It’s the first social media platform for many first-generation immigrants, that’s why it’s a little harder to just say ‘this thing is so dangerous and terrible, we should get rid of it.'”

The Australian Tibetan Communities Association highlighted the dilemma faced by people who want to use WeChat to keep in touch with families in its submission to the inquiry.

“Members of the Tibetan community in Australia [are] choose between surveillance by the Chinese government and the inability to stay in touch with families,” the presentation reads.

“Tibetan-Australians feel insecure talking freely to their parents or relatives, much less about Tibetan politics or our exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.”

Zha said the presence of authoritative news sources on WeChat such as SBS and ABC has helped change where Chinese-Australians find their news, serving as a bridge for migrants to find information outside of WeChat.

WeChat, in a presentation to the inquiry, said that the company was “willing to consider implementing country-specific or other restrictions or qualifications from time to time in relation to promotional political materials,” and said that the company had policies in place prohibiting misinformation and disinformation.

The company said, like TikTok, that Australian users’ data is held in Singapore and that chat data is only stored on users’ devices, not kept on servers.

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