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Sunday, 10 May 2015 23:03

Data Retention: The day Australian democracy died Featured


Less than two months ago, the Australian Federal Parliament introduced mandatory data retention legislation, a law that most Australians do not want. They were able to do this because Australia no longer has a parliament that represents the will or interests of its people.

On broad matters of public policy, such as privacy, censorship, corporate copyright protection, globalisation, international alliances, and other such matters, the governing Liberal National Coalition (LNP) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP)  “Opposition” are now in lock step.

This was demonstrated in March when only three MPs – two independents and the sole Greens member voted against the Data Retention Bill. You may not agree with my contention that the vast majority of Australians do not want this dangerously pernicious new law, but it cannot be disputed that three dissenting votes does not represent anything close to the national will.

iTWire had a poll running on all pages of the site at the time the Data Retention Bill was making its way through parliament. We make no claim to it being a scientifically accurate poll. It was more like a straw poll of a cross section of our readers, which span all strata of the technology community.

The poll ran close to 87% against mandatory data retention. That is probably an exaggerated result but it does show there was considerable opposition to this bill, something that was not reflected in the parliamentary vote or for that matter in the mainstream media.

Most readers will know that both parties are running neck and neck in the opinion polls and one-term governments threaten to become the norm. This generally happens when the population can’t distinguish between the policies of the two major political forces.

What we are seeing is an increasingly prevalent reaction to the surveillance state, predatory corporate practices, exploding public debt and erosion of democratic freedoms, something which is happening all over the western world.

UK voters are so disenchanted with their two main political parties that the country has seen a meteoric rise of the new right wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its charismatic anti-EU, anti-immigration leader Nigel Farage. The same thing is happening in France with Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Greece has marginalised its traditional parties and now has Syriza, a leftist anti-EU government, with the extreme far right Golden Dawn waiting in the wings. Spain has seen the rise of the leftist Podemos party.

In Australia, so far the only existing bulwark against the LNP and ALP political duopoly has been the Greens. Technology spokesman for the Greens, Senator Scott Ludlum continues to be a particularly vocal opponent of mandatory data retention.

However, even the Greens could be considered a suspect political alternative. Former Greens leader Christine Milne ably demonstrated that when she joined the parliamentary chorus demonising Putin and Russia after the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17.

Much has already been said in the mainstream discourse about recently departed former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. However, not much has been written about his remarkable post political career transformation from a conservative blue blood Prime Minister to an almost left leaning social reform evangelist in his latter years.

From giving lectures at the ANU advising Australia to withdraw from its alliance with the US to appearing on the much maligned by the Western political elite Russian Government sponsored English language news service RT, Malcolm Fraser was a public outspoken proponent of Australia pursuing an independent non-aligned foreign policy.

In the technology arena, we have seen nothing but week-kneed responses from the Australian political elite from both major parties to powerful US interests pushing issues such as data retention and content copyright.

Passage of the Data Retention Bill without giving proper voice to the wider Australian community is a disgrace to the principles of democracy. The many parliamentarians from both major parties who privately opposed the Bill but put their own interests ahead of the constituents they supposedly represent should hang their heads in shame and deserve to lose their seats.

With regard to the content copyright issue, there are worrying signs that once again powerful US corporate interests – in this case Hollywood – are pushing our week-kneed, spineless political leaders into blindly following their commands, while ignoring their constituents.

Hollywood’s global distribution model is obsolete and broken. As our current iTWire Poll shows, about 90% of our readers, along with leading executives of peak industry bodies, ISPs, and consumer activist groups want to see an end to ridiculous practice of geoblocking of content.

In the Internet age there is no credible reason an Australian Netflix user should not have access to the same range of content at equivalent prices to their US counterparts.

Furthermore, any attempt to lump Australian customers of US services such as Netflix and Hulu in with pirate downloaders is a gross violation of the truth. They pay for their services just like Americans do. In fact, what exactly does the so-called Free Trade Agreement between the US and Australia mean, if ordinary Australians cannot freely access US services at a fair price?

Politicians in Canberra take note. Past election campaigns have demonstrated that two major parties can each count on support from about 25% of the population. These are the useful idiots who will vote for them no matter what.

That leaves about 50% of the population who actually think about the policies that their elected representatives are pursuing. In Australia, the voting age is 18 and young people, almost universally digital natives, want political leaders who understand the way the online world works. Politicians who can’t even grasp the meaning of the term metadata have no business being involved with policy decisions involving electronic communications.

Other than an invasion of the privacy of ordinary Australians, the passage of the Data Retention Bill will mean just one thing to most Internet users – higher costs due to the increased compliance costs imposed on ISPs. Similarly trying to overlay obsolete 19th century copyright legislation on a 21st century digital marketplace will lead to increased costs not to mention the ensuing chaos as users move toward the implementation of VPNs and data encryption.

Australians want a return to the democracy we enjoyed and took for granted for most of the 20th century. At present, neither of the two major parties seem to have grasped the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with their disdain for public opinion.

The two party system served us well when one represented business and the other represented workers but that is clearly no longer the case.

Therefore, at the next election look for a massively increased vote for currently marginal leftist parties such as the Greens and the Sex Party (they really should consider rebranding and changing their name), as well as the rise of right wing populist parties akin to UKIP in the UK.  Will this be a good thing for Australia? Regardless of the answer, our current system is out of touch with the realities of the digital age, so change is inevitable.



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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.




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