In a press conference flanked by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Attorney-General George Brandis has confirmed the intention of the Government to introduce a data retention bill.
The law will force phone companies and Internet service providers to store non-content data, or metadata, for up to two years. The practice of storing metadata is a hot button issue after the US government faced strong criticism and condemnation worldwide for secretly storing the data of millions of users.
The practice, through a program managed by the US National Security Agency (NSA), was exposed after whistleblower Ed Snowden released confidential documents detailing the operation. This new legislation will mean all Australians would have metadata related to their web browsing and phone calls stored, where it could be accessed by law enforcement agencies.
The Australian Government's plans, as part of its 'Counter Terrorism Foreign Fighters Bill', also includes legislation making it illegal to promote terrorism and make it easier for Australia law enforcement to prosecute Australians fighting overseas.
New laws will make it an offence to visit prescribed areas of the world, such as war zones where terrorists operate, without a valid excuse.
Federal agencies ASIO, ASIS, the Australian Federal Police, and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, which have seen massive funding increases in recent years, will have their budgets further augmented by a total of $630 million over the next four years.
Brandis also mentioned that threats and hate speech on sites like Twitter and Facebook would also be encompassed in the new counter-terrorism provisions, meaning for example that retweeting a message about terrorism may soon be illegal in Australia.
Brandis said the proposal had been signed off by cabinet’s national security committee, comprising himself, Abbott, Bishop, immigration minister Scott Morrison and others, and had been approved "in principle.”
He said the cost of data retention and who bears it is still undecided, and that a bill was now being developed and would be introduced into parliament later this year.
Many ISPs, such as iiNet, have said that the cost of a data retention scheme would likely be passed onto users over time, warning it could cost up to $100 per customer per year to store all the data required. Some commentators have described the policy as being "more expensive than the carbon tax."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten accused the government of planning a new “Internet tax” that would push up prices for consumers. He expressed support for the principle of stronger security – and the previous Labor Government was also planning data retention laws – but warned of curbs on individual privacy in an interview with Sky News.
“On one hand we need to make sure that our national security agencies are able to do the job they’re required to do and keep Australia safe — that’s of fundamental importance to all Australians,” he said.
“But at the same time we’ve got to make sure that we don’t have the rights of individuals, their private conversations on the internet, being intruded upon by Big Brother. It’s a matter of getting the balance right.
“I think Australia’s smart enough to get the balance right but the first step will be for the Abbott government to not make this a political issue. National security shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be about the Abbott government consulting Labor so we can come to the best outcome.”
Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the Labor Party had not yet received details of the proposed legislation and would study it before making a considered response.
The Government also announced at the same press conference that it would be abandoning plans to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Abbott described the 18C changes, which would have effectively legalised hate speech, as "a complication we just don't need and we're just not going to proceed with."
He said it was affecting the Government’s relationship with the Islamic community, whose ‘cooperation was necessary in the anti-terrorism push. Abbot said everybody in ‘Team Australia’ needs to get behind the bill, which led to a flurry of ridicule on social media.
Right wing columnist Andrew Bolt, who is known to have the Prime Ministers ear and who is one of the few people to be prosecuted under the Act, blogged about the repeal an hour before the press conference began.