The Abbott Government’s metadata legislation to require telecommunications companies to store detailed information about the calls and internet use of its customers for two years has met stiff resistance from a number of quarters.
The Guardian’s Geordie Guy has labelled the legislation as “desperate, confused and contradictory” while significantly impeding civil liberties:
Retention poses enormous concerns for anyone who’d prefer their Internet provider didn’t store everything about them. Of course giving the authorities the right to peruse your data without judicial oversight, or even good reason, makes people uncomfortable. In recognition of that discomfort, Brandis, Turnbull, Colvin and Lewis tried to explain completely different concerns that nobody really has, and don’t make sense.
First we were told that the authorities aren’t seeking new powers – which is true enough, unless you count the power to make companies store and provide massive amounts of data they currently dispose of as useless. Then we were assured that these new powers are critical to national security and crime investigations – with examples given of previous successful investigations that jailed several dangerous people for many years, but didn’t actually use these yet-to-be-granted powers.
Colvin tried to score confidence points by saying the laws could help authorities target those who “illegally” download content. Surely now the terrorists are on notice! More likely it’s a warning to anyone ripping off Peppa Pig or Game of Thrones: not only is data retention likely to expose them, criminalising those who download movies and TV looks to be back on the legislative agenda.
Turnbull looked particularly uncomfortable at that revelation – or perhaps he was suddenly concerned he hadn’t removed his 2012 Alfred Deakin lecture from his website, in which he lambasted data retention. That’s a bit like when you think you might have left the iron on – but you accidentally left your own sensible feelings about your parliamentary colleagues’ agenda on your blog.
The Greens’ Scott Ludlam, who is one of the few federal members to see sense on this issue, is similarly scathing of the metadata legislation, claiming that it will impose a “surveillance tax on the entire Australian population” and that it is “mindblowing” that “the Government has introduced a mandatory data retention bill… without a definition of metadata”:
“The case [for metadata] hasn’t been made, in the jurisdictions where it’s been tried have made no difference and it’s being dismantled in Europe because it’s been found to be a violation of human rights…
The government would never admit this, but I think the very fact that they want service providers to track and store data volumes, tells me that maybe part of what’s driving this is that whole copyright or anti-piracy agenda, where they want to know who’s hitting BitTorrent sites and how much they’re bringing down, so that they can force service providers to choke the internet or potentially knock them offline. I think there’s a number of different agendas, including that one, that are kind of piggybacking along under this cloak of national security. But actually it’s got nothing to do with it.
…you’ve got George Brandis and Tony Abbott prosecuting really steep and expensive regulation of technology that they barely understand. I think that’s partly just a desire to stand up and look as though they’re doing something tough. It’s just a desire to look as though they’re strong and tough on national security, but actually they’re quite illiterate as to the basic technology itself”.
Ludlam’s concerns are also echoed by iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby, who believes there is no urgency for the bill to be passed:
“Given the contradictions in the Government’s messaging and the inept explanations of what is proposed, we need to take a deep breath, step back and have a good look at this bill. There is still no explanation of why there is any need for urgency or why the existing law is insufficient”…
“I’d call on Labor step up to the mark and make sure the bill is not allowed to be rushed through the House without careful consideration.”
Regular readers will know that I strongly oppose the Government’s data retention plan, which I believe would unnecessarily impede upon users’ freedom, would be overly expensive to set-up and administer, and would be largely ineffective.
Regarding cost, the Communications Alliance has previously estimated that data retention could cost up to $700 million to design and build the systems to support the scheme, plus a further $100m a year to run. iiNet has previously claimed that the policy could lead to customers paying an additional “internet tax” of $5 to $10 extra per month for their services.
By contrast, in yesterday’s announcement, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the government would pay a substantial share of the costs of the scheme but that he could not estimate its total cost.
So consumers will pay one way or another, either through higher internet costs or via their taxes.
The plan is also likely to be ineffective, unfairly targeting the 99% of law abiding citizens while the so-called real targets – terrorists and crooks – slip past the net.
I mean seriously, how hard is it for terrorists or criminals to use a public Wi-Fi hotspot to coordinate their activities? More importantly, anyone with even a basic understanding of the internet can set-up a “virtual private network” (VPN) in about 20 minutes, thereby evading the metadata net. As noted in Business Spectator in August:
Talk of internet filtering and metadata retention has civil libertarians concerned, but you can easily bypass government mandated Australia-wide internet monitoring by connecting to a VPN server in another country. With the click of a button you can tunnel to the other side of the world, emerging in the US or UK to avoid Australian restrictions and surveillance. There’s nothing the government can do to stop Australians using VPNs this way, unless they attempt to block all VPN traffic – which would be a major disruption to legitimate business users.
So why bother with metadata, when all the Government’s data retention policy will do is force-up everyone’s internet costs or taxes and reduce civil liberties, while the intended perpetrators continue on their merry way?