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Data retention: Turnbull does massive backflip

A little over two years ago, Malcolm Turnbull was waxing eloquent about the evils posed by the Labor Party's plans for data retention and the introduction of a blacklist of websites. Yesterday, the same man, now communications minister in a Coalition cabinet, introduced data retention plans in parliament. Oh, the irony.

Turnbull's opposition to data retention was made clear in the Alfred Deakin Lecture of 2012. It is there in full on his own website, spotted by an eagle-eyed Guardian journalist. It is grandly titled: "Free at last! Or freedom lost? Liberty in the digital age."

Of course, some time in the future it might quietly disappear from the website. Statements by politicians that prove to be an embarrassment to them have a funny way of going into the bit bucket.

But while it's there, one can muse on some of the sentiments expressed therein and wonder when the silver-haired Turnbull, who has just crossed 60, underwent a more dramatic conversion than the Biblical Paul did on the road to Damascus.

Talking of the right of an individual to delete data that he/she had created, Turnbull said: "And how far should a right to delete go? Just like we cannot delete an email or a letter we have sent to someone else, how can we delete the photograph we posted on line which was then copied by another? How can we have a right to be digitally forgotten without impinging on others' right of free speech?

"This issue has been brought into sharp focus by the Attorney-General’s vague but at face value far-reaching plan to expand data interception, mandatory data retention, and government access to private digital information."

Yet, the proposal put before Parliament by Turnbull is no less vague than the one he railed against (the Labor plan never reached Parliament but was contained in a discussion paper to which many parties submitted responses). The Coalition's plan does not say what will be retained, how much it will cost or who will foot the bill.

Turnbull went on: "Leaving aside the central issue of the right to privacy, there are formidable practical objections. The carriers, including Telstra, have argued that the cost of complying with a new data retention regime would be very considerable with the consequence of higher charges for their customers."

What happened to these objections over the last two years? Did they just disappear? Or is Turnbull now viewing the world through different glasses?

Turnbull also raised the question of data stored offshore, data that is collected by companies like Google. "Google currently permanently deletes emails or Youtube videos from their server once the customer deletes it. Search logs are rendered anonymous after nine months. It would be utterly impractical, and possibly unlawful, for Google to discriminate against customers from Australia and treat them differently from any others," he said.

Has the situation with Google changed now, minister?

But Turnbull wasn't finished with the arguments against data retention. "And finally – why do we imagine that the criminals of the greatest concern to our security agencies will not be able to use any of numerous available means to anonymise their communications or indeed choose new services that are not captured by legislated data retention rules?" he asked.

Yesterday, I wrote about the levels of hypocrisy exhibited by the Labor Party. Turnbull has proved that the Coalition is every bit as good in this respect.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.