The Australian Government has “crossed the line” by trying to “rush through” legislation that will force telcos and service providers to retain customer metadata for two years, according to industry and political opponents of the bill.
This morning's surprise introduction of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull faced fierce criticism within hours of its arrival, after the Goverment failed to respond to sustained calls for an exposure draft to be released.
The bill mandates that telecommunications service providers retain a yet-to-be-detailed dataset on each customer for two years, to be made available to law enforcement agencies without a warrant. It does not outline the specific details of the dataset to be retained.
Greens MP Scott Ludlam - a long-time vocal opponent to data retention - today said the Government's move would trigger a “very serious campaign” against the scheme.
“We have been warning the Government for months not to cross the line. They have refused to listen to the evidence provided by civil society groups, the telco industry and by political voices across the spectrum," he said in a press conference this morning.
“We plan on fighting mandatory data retention, which will impose a surveillance tax on the entire Australian population, and which will impose on industry an obligation that it doesn’t want and hasn’t sought, to trap and store material on every device held by every man, woman and child in this country.”
Ludlam called on the Labor Party to “read the damn bill this time” - referring to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who earlier this morning expressed concerns about the ASIO bill his party recently voted through - urging it not “simply to vote for [the data retention bill], wave it through and then express regret [later]".
He argued there was no reason to rush through a bill which was based on a proposal that had been floating around for several years - especially, he argued, one that lacked the detail on what metadata was to be retained.
“I think it’s mindblowing that this has been a proposal that has been in the wings since at least 2008, and the Government has introduced a mandatory data retention bill this morning without a definition of metadata," he said.
"They still can’t show the industry or the general public or this parliament what it is that they want. That’s absolutely unbelievable.”
Ludlam’s concerns were echoed by iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby - a key figure in the campaign against the scheme - who said there was 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,” he told iTnews.
“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.”
John Stanton, the head of telco representative body the Comms Alliance, said he welcomed that the Government's referral of the legislation to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and national security signalled there would not be a rush to push through the bill this calendar year.
He told iTnews the industry welcomed the Government's decision to address several of the concerns raised about the scheme - specifically the cost of the proposal, an ability to apply for exemption, and the number of agencies currently able to access the data.
"We wanted an exposure draft, but we haven't got it so we'll look at the legislation that's been introduced," he said.
"The dataset and operational elements of the bill are going to be captured in regulation, so there is an opportunity to try and make sure that the final products is workable."
Not all members of the telecommunications industry have been as vocal about their opposition to the scheme.
Australia's dominant two telcos expressed relief that the government has promised to contribute to the cost of the regime - which the industry has put at hundreds of millions of dollars to set up and maintain.
A Telstra spokesperson said the telco welcomed the Government’s commitment to resolve outstanding issues with the proposal through ongoing consultation with industry, and by submitting the bill to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.
“Complying with the legislation will go beyond Telstra’s current business practices, but we are encouraged by the Government’s statements on costs, that the type and volume of data is limited and that web browsing history will not be part of the scheme,” the spokesperson said.
An Optus spokesperson said the Government was taking a “balanced response” to managing security and safeguard concerns .
“We are pleased that the path proposed for [the bill] reflects views put to the government by telecommunications carriers,” the spokesperson said.
“It is important to resolve practical details in ways that provide peace of mind for all stakeholders. We will continue to consult on the detail of the bill over the coming weeks.”
The Government has promised to continue consulting with industry as part of a new working group - which includes high-ranking members of the AFP, Attorney-General’s Department and Communications - to discuss implementation, costs and refinement of the dataset.