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Friday, 26 April 2019 12:11

Encryption law: tech sector waiting for someone else to bell the cat

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The Australian tech sector is waiting for Moses to part the Red Sea. The Australian tech sector is waiting for Moses to part the Red Sea. Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

Australians may not have learnt much from the on-again, off-again election campaign that began on 11 April, but one thing has been made abundantly clear: the technology sector in this country is made up of wimps who are afraid to make anything, even an encryption law which they claim could destroy their industry, into an election issue.

The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018 became law on 6 December last year and there was hope among the tech boffins that a review instituted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, with a reporting date of 3 April, would provide some solace.

But the PJCIS did what politicians do best and kicked the issue down the road, asking the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, Dr James Renwick, to review the law and report back by 1 March 2020.

Not a single amendment was recommended and a week or so later, the election was called. This means that the entire technology sector will have to wait, with what is literally the sword of Damocles dangling over it, for another year.

True, the Labor MP who handles the digital portfolio, Ed Husic, has promised to make changes when, as expected, Labor gets back into government.

Much better than waiting for Husic — who has a readymade excuse to wait until March next year before doing anything — the tech sector, which boasts revenue of something like $3.2 billion, could have taken up the issue, found a couple of people to lead the campaign, and harangued politicians about the law.

But apart from some gratuitous statements from the two richest tech entrepreneurs, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar of Atlassian, there has been hardly a peep from the sector that has been whinging about the law from the time it was first introduced in August last year.

Cannon-Brookes told The Australian that he was expecting some discussion around renewables and electric vehicles in the lead-up to the election, but ultimately “not anything much’ when it comes to technology policy.

It did not occur to this worthy that those who should raise technology issues are those from the industry itself. Cannon-Brookes did not offer any perspective on that. In truth, he doesn't need to; he can pull out of Australia and not see even a single digit change on Atlassian's balance sheet. And, in the end, that is what bothers every tech entrepreneur.

Of course, it gives the locals much comfort to say that since the law affects international firms too, the latter can be relied on to do the heavy lifting. Forgotten amidst such rosy assumptions is the bald fact that international companies can easily walk away from a market as small as Australia with not a backward glance. Indeed, companies like Google and Facebook are doing pretty well without making anything like what they could from the Chinese market – and that is more than 50 times the size of the Australian market.

Australia is famous for what it likes to claim is a laidback attitude – the famous "she'll be right" approach. It is a convenient mask for apathy of the worst sort, the inability to rouse oneself and try to get something done until one's own backside is on fire.

Since the election was called, only the Australian Information Industry Association has even mentioned the encryption law. The rest of the industry is waiting for Moses to part the Red Sea.

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Sam Varghese

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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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