Brandis' callousness on data retention beggars belief

We are about to cross the point of no return when it comes mandatory data retention. The public and the telecom industry are justifiably concerned about the Coalition's haste to enshrine ill-conceived legislation.

Attorney-General George Brandis faces an uphill task in making the Coalition’s mandatory data retention scheme palatable to our telecommunications companies, if the latest murmurings from the industry are anything to go by.

Hiring PricewaterCoopers consultants to crunch the numbers on just how much the controversial regime will slug the industry may seem like a worthwhile investment, but it’s unlikely to assuage the fears of operators that have little to gain and whole lot to lose.

The reported urgency within Coalition ranks to push data retention legislation through the Senate has only added to the disquiet within the industry.

Telcos are worried -- and they should be -- because this burst of enthusiasm from the Attorney General’s office raises a very real prospect of rushing through laws that enshrine a surveillance state for Australian citizens, with the telco operators playing the role of reluctant enforcers.

Data retention isn’t a new issue, but the previous Labor government at least saw the good sense in letting it go. Whether the party, now in opposition, has the gumption to stand up to the Coalition on the matter remains to be seen.

However, as Greens Senator Scott Ludlam quite rightly pointed out this week, once the legislation gets through there’s no turning back.

The implications of transgressing this point of no return are grave, not just for the telco industry, but society as a whole. What’s truly frightening is that we may be about to cross the threshold with a half-baked plan put together at the behest of security agencies that have grown accustomed to having things all their own way.

For the costing exercise to be of any use, one would expect to have at the very least a clear definition of what data would need to be retained.

Attorney-General George Brandis’ claim that telcos won’t be asked to retain anything more than they already do, just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Industry body Communications Alliance’s chief executive John Stanton categorically rejected the claim this week, telling those gathered at the Communications Day Congress in Melbourne that the government’s proposal asks for a lot more and without the requisite justification.

“We are in discussions with the Attorney-General’s department to try to refine the data set that it desires, look at a whole range of implementation issues in order to try and see if a sensible, practical and reasonable retention scheme is a possibility,” Stanton said.

“Frankly the jury is out on that from our perspective at this stage.”

Data retention is not a trivial issue which makes the prospect of rushing this legislation through under the guise of protecting the public from terrorism such a callous move.  

Stanton says that the idea of bringing in legislation two weeks from now is patently ridiculous and he sincerely hopes that’s not the case.

He’s not alone.

Perth-based internet service provider iiNet has been vociferous in its opposition to the scheme and its latest missive (read iiNet’s full submission here) further illustrates the flimsy foundations on which the scheme is built.

“Blanket data retention is mass surveillance. It is not something that we currently do and would add significant costs to the way we do business,” iiNet states bluntly.

It goes on to add that so far there’s no evidence that conclusively points to the need for current laws to be changed, explain why telcos need to take on the additional burdens associated with the scheme or justify why they should effectively become ‘agents of the state.’

Why indeed – it’s not like our security agencies are deprived of sustenance, monetary or otherwise.

The severe ramifications of the scheme on civil liberties is of paramount concern but Shara Evans, telecommunications analyst with Market Clarity, says there are some basic questions that need to be addressed before any pen is put to paper.

“The definition of what will be collected needs to be clearly marked down,” Evans says.

“Who will have access to this data and under what circumstances will they be accessed.”

She warns that the scheme will effectively create data pools that will be incredibly unsafe and just who takes the responsibility for keeping it safe is an issue that needs careful consideration.

These technical factors will play a key role in what the final scheme may look like but this really does boil down to what we as citizens are willing to accept.

“This is not an issue of what have you got to hide, this is about the things you want to keep private,” Evans says.

Given the callousness displayed by the Attorney-General on this issue and the magnitude of the work required to build a feasible framework for the scheme, it’s odd that the government is supposedly in such a rush with the legislation.

Evans says it's clear that the retention issue is linked to the copyright issue, not just online content, but something far broader.

She raises a valid point. A nexus between a data retention regime and a broader copyright enforcement regime, both policed by telecom operators, has the potential to encompass a lot more than just entertainment, especially as the advent of 3D printing and customisation provide a new dynamic between consumers and companies. 

But the battle begins now and if the opposition decides to be supine to the Coalition on this issue, it risks being party to an ill-conceived process that will leave behind a terrible legacy for the Australian people.

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