Friday, 08 February 2019 10:53

CA chief says 'dangerous' encryption law needs repair Featured

John Stanton: "The bill, as passed, still raises serious concerns for many stakeholders on a range of fronts." John Stanton: "The bill, as passed, still raises serious concerns for many stakeholders on a range of fronts." Supplied

Communications Alliance chief John Stanton has urged the IT industry to highlight the changes needed in the Federal Government's encryption law that was passed last year, telling a forum in Sydney on Thursday that there was an urgent need "to try to repair this dangerous piece of legislation".

"The bill, as passed, still raises serious concerns for many stakeholders on a range of fronts, including the scope of the powers given to agencies, the damaging impact of the legislation on the Australian IT industry, the dangers posed by the bill’s interaction with international laws, the weakness of consultation and assessment provisions and many more," he said.

Present at the forum were representatives from the Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet which includes ACCAN, Access Now, AI Group, AIIA, Amnesty International Australia, AMTA, Blueprint for Free Speech, Communications Alliance, DIGI, Digital Rights Watch, Future Wise, Hack for Privacy, Human Rights Law Centre, Internet Australia, IoTAA, and Liberty Victoria, who together represent consumers, human rights organisations, business, industry and a wide range of technology companies.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter are all members of DIGI.

Stanton said the bill had been passed with government amendments that had been prepared in a hurry, "and we must acknowledge that these amendments did make some minor improvements to the legislation".

The encryption law, officially known as the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018), was passed on 6 December, but just 12 days later, the PJCIS said it would begin a fresh review.

The new review has asked for submissions and will submit a report by 3 April.

The law was passed without any amendments due to there being a lack of time for Labor to add them in the Senate. Labor leader Bill Shorten agreed to this compromise, on the proviso that the amendments would be passed during the first sitting of 2019.

The lack of time came about because the government delayed voting on another bill in the Senate – a cross-party push to amend existing legislation on moving refugees from Manus Island and Nauru to the mainland. The delay was in order to prevent it going back to the lower house for a vote and embarrassing the government.

There is now uncertainty whether the amendments will be considered before the PJCIS submits its review in April. If that happens, then it would not be possible for the amendments to be looked at until the expected Federal Election in May has taken place.

Stanton referred to the government commitment to consider the amendments during the first sitting week of Parliament — the law is listed for discussion next Wednesday — saying that as the legislation was about to pass the Senate, Finance Minister Matthias Cormann had said the PJCIS would conduct a review of the operation of the amendments made by the Bill and report on 3 April.

"He also said 'The government has agreed to facilitate consideration of these amendments in the New Year in Government Business Time'," Stanton said. "Confusing words (understood he meant the Labor amendments). Labor believed the deal was that its amendments would be considered in the first Parliamentary sitting week in 2019.

"[Home Affairs Minister] Peter Dutton, through his spokesperson, is now saying he will do nothing until after the PJCIS reports in April. There are only four Senate sitting days and 8 House of Representatives sitting days, between 3 April and 18 May.

"Labor wants the government to bring forward a bill that, at least, makes the legislation consistent with the 17 recommendations the PJCIS made in its interim report back on 6 December. Labor might bring forward a private member's bill and seek cross-bench support in the Senate, to get it passed there. Not sure what its chances would look like in the House of Reps."

The CA chief also referred to the upcoming challenge for the group. "The next task coming down the path for the PJCIS is the scheduled review of the Data Retention legislation, which must commence on or before 13 April," he reminded his audience.

"That review will also encompass issues with the Assistance and Access Act, given that some of its provisions create loopholes in other Acts – such as the ability to get around the Special Journalist Warrant requirements of the Data Retention legislation."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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