A bill to afford Australian submarine fibre optic cables the same protection as fibre links to international locations is set to become law, after the proposed legislation passed the Senate today.
The bill was first introduced by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull late last year. The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013 will now be presented to the Governor-General for assent before becoming law.
It supports protection zones for domestic submarine cables to ensure the links receive the same protection as international cables.
Previously, only subsea cables connecting a place in Australia to a location outside of Australia were covered under Section 3a of the Telecommunications Act. The Act did not take into account undersea cables connecting two Australian locations.
The new legislation now means domestic submarine cable operators - such as Vocus and Trident Subsea Cable - will be protected from activities that may damage their cables, including the use of trawl gear, sand mining, exploring for resources, and dredging, among others.
Within these ‘protection zones’ such activities can incur penalties including fines of up to $60,000 and/or 10 years’ imprisonment for a person, and up to $330,000 for a corporation.
"Australia is one of only a handful of nations that has a dedicated regime for the protection of submarine cables," Turnbull said at the time the bill was introduced.
"The bill will ensure that Australia's regime continues to be a best practice regime and the protection the regime affords to this vital infrastructure is maintained."
The bill was referred to a Senate Committee for further scrutiny in December last year, after Greens Senator Scott Ludlam raised concerns about international government surveillance agencies tapping into submarine cables, as revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The committee, which tabled its report into the matter in late March, did not see any need to amend the bill further to include protection provisions for “malicious disturbance”, which it said was already covered under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.