news The Australian Greens have issued a broad statement warning Australians that their Internet freedom is being steadily ‘eroded’, with a wide swathe of government initiatives in areas ranging from surveillance to data retention, to the freedom of expression and privacy set to affect the nation over the coming years.
In a statement issued last week, Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam drew attention to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Australia helped draft and is a signatory to, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In addition, he also drew attention to article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is believed to have some legitimacy in Australia, but as much as the Universal Declaration. It states firstly that no-one should be subjected to “arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation”; and also that everyone had the right of legal protection against such interference or attacks.
With reference to these legal codes in Australia, Ludlam said the “one-way militarisation of the Internet” was currently “steadily eroding some of the very freedoms that our security agencies were intended to protect”. He added: “From straightforward privacy concerns to wider questions of genuine security and the integrity of a medium that holds so much promise, a healthy balance can only be struck with concerted citizen action.”
The Greens Senator highlighted a number of examples of such erosion in Australia, such as:
- Regular modifications to the Telecommunications Interception and Access (TIA) Act
- The introduction of the Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011
- The introduction of the Cybercrime Bill 2011
- The introduction of data retention initiatives
- The publication of the ‘Cyber White Paper’, due at the end of June 2012
- New cyber-agreement with the US
With respect to the Telecommunications Interception and Access (TIA) Act, Ludlam said this legislation was amended several times a year to expand surveillance powers, to allow interception of electronic communications in the name of protecting computer networks, or in the name of resisting cybercrime or terrorism. The TIA Act annual report showed law enforcement agencies obtained nearly a quarter of a million authorisations for access to telecommunications information in 2010-11, he said.
The Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011 authorised the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to undertake surveillance offshore in relation to Australia’s economic interests, and to spy on people and organisations overseas that do not fit the current definition of “foreign powers”, Ludlam said: “ASIO can collect information on Australians in foreign countries if there’s a supposed impact Australia’s foreign relations: there’s no need to relate to a security threat.”
With respect to the Cybercrime Bill (2011), which is currently before the Senate, Ludlam said the bill proposed to reduce the threshold for wiretaps and requires ongoing collection and retention of specific communications data. In addition, he said, it allows for Australia to assist in prosecutions which could lead to the death penalty overseas.
The data retention proposal, popular referred to as ‘OzLog’, is part of an inquiry which Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has called with respect to a wide-ranging package of legislation to boost government surveillance powers. It will require all Australian ISPs and telcos to collect and store all data on their users for up to two years — such as telephone and Internet access records. “Surveillance overreach doesn’t come much more audacious than this,” said Ludlam.
The Cyber White Paper, due to be published at the end of June, will examine the Federal Government’s whole of government approach to cyberspace, while on May 18 this year, the Government signed a cyber-security agreement with the United States, building on an agreement in November 2011 that undefined online attacks could be used to invoke the ANZUS treaty.
In his statement, Ludlam described the Internet as a vital communications medium that was being used by millions of people to exercise rights to freedom of expression and collaboration; a network that was playing a role in building a globally connected civil society. However, along with this increased connectedness, the Greens Senator said, there had been “a massive increase in data collection and retention”, some of it reflecting “intimate details”, which “has been used to assemble ever more detailed commercial profiles and to extend the reach of law enforcement agencies”, tracking and disrupting the work of pro-democracy campaigners and journalists.
“In Australia, increasingly expansive and poorly defined surveillance powers are regularly passed through the Parliament with minimal debate,” Ludlam wrote.
“As much as it is the Government’s role to promote collective protection against identity theft, online crime and acts of political violence, we also have an expectation of privacy, freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary acts of state coercion. As the lines between terrorism, civil disobedience and healthy dissent are deliberately blurred, Australia’s security agencies and police forces have been deployed against climate change demonstrators, the occupy movement, anti-whaling campaigners and supporters of the WikiLeaks publishing organisation.”
“Australians have a strong tradition of standing up for free speech and freedom of association – we need to safeguard these traditions in the online environment.”
I highly agree with Ludlam’s comments here. If you’ve been reading Delimiter over the past two and half years since I founded the site, you will have read at least dozens of articles about how various organisations, ranging from the Attorney-General’s Department in the Federal Government to the content industry and from the Australian Federal Police to ASIO, have sought increasing power over how Australians use the Internet.
Australia’s Federal Government, if it had its way, would control what material we accessed on the Internet through its mandatory Internet filtering project, require ISPs to keep comprehensive records on what we did access through its data retention policies, allow organisations such as ASIO covert access to our computers, force us to decrypt our secure data stores, allow a huge series of telecommunications interceptions to take place, and track our financial transactions for taxation purposes and to make sure we’re not evading welfare restrictions.
Everything we do on the Internet is the subject of some kind of government control initiative. If you think I’m kidding, I encourage you to search Delimiter for the word ‘OzLog’. Or perhaps ‘filter’. Also, ‘AFACT’, ‘piracy’, or even better, ‘Attorney-General’s Department’. I believe you will find a huge government apparatus which has been set up for the express purpose of controlling and monitoring what Australians do and say online.
Senator Ludlam is not exaggerating in his fear of Australian Government control over the Internet; he is not fearmongering for political gain. In actual fact, his extensive statement on the erosion of Australians’ Internet rights is somewhat conservative and does not go into the true depths of what the Government is currently proposing in Australia. I encourage you to do your research and verify this truth for yourself.
Right now, only a handful of parliamentarians, a handful of journalists and a handful of external organisations such as the Pirate Party of Australia are holding the Government accountable on these matters. The line between our current status and total Australian Government control of the Internet is very thin indeed.