‘National security’: NBN Co blocks Huawei FoI


news The National Broadband Network Company, in consultation with associated Federal Government Departments have used a complex series of legal arguments, including national security grounds, to block the public Freedom of Information release of a series of documents relating to the decision to block Chinese vendor Huawei from tendering for NBN contracts.

In late March this year, Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon confirmed that her department had banned Huawei from participating in the multi-billion dollar National Broadband Network tendering process, despite the company not being accused of having broken any pertinent laws in Australia. Chinese diplomatic representatives and Huawei itself protested the ban strongly, but it was defended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard that same month, with the Labor leader emphasising the Australian Government’s right to make its own choice with regards to network suppliers.

Subsequently, technology media outlet ZDNet sought access to emails and memorandums within NBN Co relating to Huawei and NBN tenders. Delimiter has also filed a Freedom of Information request with NBN Co seeking any technical evaluation of Huawei’s networking equipment, although that FoI request has not been finalised yet.

Today NBN Co published its response to ZDNet’s inquiry (available online here in full). Unfortunately the news was not good. After determining that “hundreds of thousands of documents” could potentially be included in the initial dataset sought by ZDNet and successfully working with the publication to narrow the scope of its enquiry, NBN Co today said it had identified ten documents falling within its remit. However, NBN Co’s Freedom of Information office noted that it had decided to refuse access to all of those documents. ZDNet reported this story first.

Most of the cited documents consisted of papers which appeared to have been prepared for NBN Co’s board of directors, relating to the procurement approach for various pieces of equipment for the NBN — ranging from optical transmission network equipment to Ethernet aggregation and transmission equipment. Several other documents constituted board minutes, and there were several documents prepared as briefs from NBN Co’s head of corporate Kevin Brown to Stephen Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, as well as to NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley.

In its response to ZDNet’s enquiry, NBN Co wrote that most of the documents had been exempted by release because of consultation with the Attorney-General’s Department.

“After a consultation process, the AGD advised NBN Co that it objected to the release of documents 1 to 8 and relevant parts of document 10 on the basis of section 33(1)(a)(i) of the FOI Act,” the company wrote. “In particular, the AGD advised NBN Co that the disclosure of these documents could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the security of the Commonwealth.”

NBN Co also exempted the remaining documents from being released, using a number of other justifications, such as the idea that some of the documents contained information regarding NBN Co’s tendering efforts which could have adverse implications for the contracts concerned and future deals. Conroy’s Department highlighted this aspect as a concern, in its discussions regarding the FoI’d material with NBN Co.

“To date, the Government has not publicly disclosed reasons why it excluded Huawei from participating in tender bids to NBN Co,” NBN Co wrote in one section of his explanation for blocking the release of the documenbts.

“As such, the Government and NBN Co’s ‘deliberative processes’ have not yet been finalised. As such, the release of documents 9 and [part of 10] through FoI processes could have the effect of undermining the Minister and the Government’s current policy positions … the release of these documents could impact upon the Government’s negotiations with stakeholders across the government, community and telecommunications sector.”

It’s not the first time NBN Co has rejected a substantial FoI request in full from the public. In January, the Federal Government’s Information Commissioner supported NBN Co’s rejection of an attempt by internet service provider Internode to obtain the complete text of Telstra’s $11 billion deal with the National Broadband Network Company under Freedom of Information laws.

In general, I find NBN Co’s staff very easy to deal with. They are normally polite, up-front, transparent, honest and helpful. They have a great deal of patience when dealing with Australia’s media, which does not always show the same degree of patience when dealing with NBN Co. However, the exception to this, in my experience, has been NBN Co’s Freedom of Information division.

In the document released by ZDNet today, there is a section labelled “Application Chronology and Terms of Request”, on page two. I encourage readers to read that section of NBN Co’s response to ZDNet’s FoI request in detail. What it illustrates, in my opinion, is the general approach currently taken by NBN Co’s FoI team.

The conversation goes back and forth many times, as the two sides discuss how the FoI request will proceed. No doubt NBN Co would argue that it is helping the FoI process in this light. But in my experience, the more times you go back and forth with an FoI officer with respect to this kind of request, the more likely they are to be able to use the kind of extensive legal arguments which NBN Co used today, to block access to almost all — or, as in this case, all — of the information you are seeking. The more they refine your request, in essence, the less you will get back.

To put this into context, regular readers will be aware that I have filed a number of FoI requests over the past six months with the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, which has been very reluctant to release information about its Internet piracy and data retention initiatives. I have to say that I find NBN much more difficult to deal with when it comes to FoI than I do the Attorney-General’s Department — or, indeed, any other department I have ever dealt with on FoI.

When it comes to Freedom of Information, NBN Co is locked up very tight indeed. It will be interesting to see what the current review of NBN Co’s FoI compliance by Victorian QC Stuart Morris finds. Morris’ report should have been handed over by now to the Attorney-General’s Department.

Image credit: NBN Co


  1. I read a quite apposite quote yesterday: “You no longer function as a representative government if too much of what the government does is kept from the people.”

  2. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the NBN Co and the Government won’t allow Huawei to see many documents relating to the NBN or why it remains silent on requests from third parties as to why it won’t allow Huawei to be a part of the NBN.

    All you need to do is a search of Huawei’s murky history and it still murky links with the military and gov of China, our biggest rival and military adversary. There are still many questions to be answered about the structure of the company and its links to the military and its founder. Hiring people like Alexander Downer and opening a local office makes the company no less a tool of the Chinese government economically and militarily. Wolf in sheep’s clothing comes to mind.

    If you think that China would allow Telstra (an Australian company) to build its only main telco network (assuming Telstra made equipment, which it does not, obviously) you are a bigger idiot than you realise! It would never happen! but that does not stop China’s relentless push to build and operate core networks of its adversaries like Australia, India, Britain, and America – some of whom were stupid enough to give in and allow them to compete. And to compete using designs based off stolen IP and built with wage slave labor.

    A government that lets it adversaries/frienemies build its core networks and tells its citizens every little detail about national security in the name of freedom and openness is one that would last about an hour in a major country to country conflict, if that. I am glad the Australian Government does not tell people things they don’t really need to know which would also be available to its adversaries in the process! It’s common sense, really.

    • “If you think that China would allow Telstra (an Australian company) to build its only main telco network (assuming Telstra made equipment, which it does not, obviously) you are a bigger idiot than you realise! It would never happen! ”


      Looks like it happened.

      “I am glad the Australian Government does not tell people things they don’t really need to know which would also be available to its adversaries in the process! It’s common sense, really.”

      And Cisco is involved in NBN Co tender process.

      • I would guess Cisco is just following the money bag, regardless of whether it requires leaving their ethics at the front doorstep. I can’t see Huawei doing dodgy stuff just for the money.

    • Your allegations of anything of Huawei are just hearsays, and without solid evidence, they can never stand in any court.
      And I’m wondering, since when, had China become Australia’s enemy? And, for what?
      Cold-war mentality is like drugs, someone just can not quit it.

    • The requests they have denied are from ZD Net, not Huawei. It’smuch easier to extrapolate that the government doesn’t want other more sinister interests than Huawei to see what’s in the requests than them not wanting Huawei to see them.

  3. Maybe our Govt knows something we don’t, I mean why screw around with one of our biggest trading partners for no reason. I’m still wondering why this topic has gotten such a big run here, even a shallow search will throw up China’s proclivity to get its nose in where ever it can.

        • Sorry mate; years of dealing with the government has taught me to question everything ;) Delimiter is an evidence-based site and I don’t write articles without evidence.

          • I’m saying maybe our Govt isn’t presenting evidence because it might be undiplomatic to do so, a concept not without precedent.

          • The fact stands that Huawei is still allowed to sell products in Australia where they allegedly can potentially hijack Internet access. So I want to know WHY the Australian government company who is building is able to decide on information not publicly available yet they claim having Huawei involvement CAN affect the Internet access, all the same.

            I don’t know about you, but this smacks of plutocratic corruption to exclude a company tender. I predict the result of less competition is higher prices and vendor lock-in proprietary shit for Australians using NBN. In fact, since sleazy Cisco is still involved, there’s potential of having our own great firewall of Australia.

      • Surely “It’s received a big run here…” Without getting into a debate about whether gotten is or is not correct, it’s lazy, and has no place in professional journalism – for shame, Renai! ;-)

        As for you contention that the govt should demonstrate or provide evidence of some kind of wrongdoing on the part of Huawei, why? The govt is not stopping Huawei from trading in Australia and they’re not making statements about wrongdoing by the company generally. All they’ve done has been to choose which manufacturers they wish to buy from. If rumour as to ties with the Chinese govt and military happen to be true, I think that’s a fairly reasonable position.

        If it turned out that Huawei was, in fact, building backdoors into their products, or maybe just kill codes and they had been allowed to supply hardware used throughout the NBN, you and everyone else in the country would be highly critical of the govt for endangering the safety/privacy/security of the nation in the delivery of its core telecommunications infrastructure.

        Taking this position, the govt protects the country from the potentially disastrous consequences of integrating compromised equipment in the NBN, a legacy it will leave behind for many decades. Perhaps they have no evidence for this concern, perhaps engineers have advised them that there are significant technical challenges to reverse-engineer such products and without doing so it is impossible to fully vet them. In that case, they must make a call based on the potential risk and the consequences of building the NBN without them. Excluding Huawei does not significantly affect the outcome or even costs of the NBN. Including them, however, introduces an unacceptably high risk to Australia, and that is a logical position we should respect, because the alternative is simply irresponsible.

        • There is proven backdoors in Cisco hardware. And Cisco is still part of the NBN tender process.

          I can’t believe there’s so much less scrutiny of American companies’ past history. What’s with the anti-Sino attitude?

  4. Actually Trevor the use of “gotten” is down to me not Renai, an I don’t pretend to be a journo. Perhaps you need to check these things out thoroughly otherwise you might be accused of laziness. The rest of your post is fine, carry on.

    • In this instance he was paraphrasing you, but it’s a word he uses extensively throughout Delimiter, so my comment was not unqualified. Not that I’m trying to be a grammar nazi – plenty of people use it routinely. It just detracts from Renai’s otherwise quite well written and informative articles and I think it’s a shame he lets himself down in this way.

      Hmm, that sounded far more condescending than I intended – sorry :-/

  5. Mmmm, I’m a bit dubious to the whole thing.

    I don’t know what to think about Huawei. And I don’t know what to think about NBNCo. refusing FOI requests.

    There are legitimate reasons for refusing FOI requests. But there needs to be SOME discussion, not flat out refusal. I’m not surprised NBNCo. are keeping mum if the government are doing the same. NBNCo. would be opening a can of worms by saying something when the government forbade them to.

    I don’t inherently trust Huawei, I’m mistrustful of alot of foreign companies, Chinese ones in particular if I’m honest. However, as you say Renai, it has not been proven they’ve done or are doing anything wrong.

    I think there needs to be a much more open debate about it. But ultimately, it IS the government’s decision who they tender to. The fact that Huawei doesn’t like this is unfortunate, but can’t be helped. I find it interesting that Vodafone and Optus don’t have a problem using their equipment however…

  6. Evidence of Huawei’s covert capabilities do not need to be proven in public. Nor do their historic and current connections to the PLA. Nor do their duplicitous activities in monitoring and intercepting networks – using covert means. Nor do the massive, non-commercial finance deals that Huawei do, backed by the Chinese Government, to get equipment into national networks in many third world countries. Nor information about their hiring of “credible” senior company representatives – in various countries (including Australia) who have absolutely no idea of what is really going on…and just cash the cheques.

    “Things” happen in security around the world and this information is quietly passed between “those that know/discover” and “those that need to know” – intelligence & national security agencies.

    Decisions are then made – without public reference – for the good of national security.

    All I will say is that these decisions ARE good decisions.

    • Please tell me why Huawei is giving out open source schemas and code, to show trustworthiness. While the other company tenders are proprietary who will NEVER let the Australian government, let alone, NBN Co to see how their hardware and software works?

  7. It’s not really the point that Cisco build CIA backdoors into their hardware. There is -NO- Australian manufacturer of this kind of networking equipment, so we need to go overseas. Cisco is a US manufacturer who designs, manufactures and assembles processing chips and key networking devices in the US to ensure there can be no tampering by foreign governments or companies. The USA (like them or not) are our strongest political, military and economic ally. So the Australian govt will automatically feel far more comfortable with Cisco equipment than any other supplier precisely because of those close ties with the US govt.

    Huawei, on the other hand, have close ties to the Chinese govt & military, a regime with a history of civil rights abuses, limitations on freedoms of their own citizens, espionage and ‘hacking’ of foreign governments and corporations, even onerous and restrictive requirements for foreign companies and individuals operating within their country. China can’t have their cake and eat it too – they have far more restrictive policies with regards to foreign suppliers, so they have no right to question the authority or motives of a sovereign foreign government choosing not to make use of a particular Chinese company’s products.

    And then the apologists will say, “but if we wish other countries such as China to meet a higher moral, legal and social standard, we can’t act like them.” Which is precisely the point – by our criteria, they do have a flawed social, legal and moral system, so knowing that, why would you entertain a solution that introduced even the possibility of industrial espionage? You’d only have yourself to blame, after all ;-)

    • Hear hear Trevor.

      It is the governments choice to go with who they deem fit. Does that mean there shouldn’t be questioning of the tendering? No. But they have technical, political, diplomatic and (possibly) security reasons to go with Cisco.

      Huawei are still an emerging industry heavyweight AND have questions that will constantly be asked, whether that be right or wrong, about their Chinese govt and military affiliations. The fact is, China have gone from a closed, harsh, military communist to an ‘open’, lively and engaging social dictatorship (you certainly couldn’t call them a proper republic yet, even though they’d like to be known as such- not with the government-human rights abuses going on) in less time than your average civil war.

      I don’t think that it is unreasonable we ask questions of trust, seeing as the generation that were in the old regime are in some cases STILL in power positions. I have no issue with Huawei being involved in international business. But as you say, if a sovereign government excludes them out of concern, it is their right and with current Chinese foreign investment laws, I think a little hypocritical to be complaining.

      • quote / “The fact is, China have gone from a closed, harsh, military communist to an ‘open’, lively and engaging social dictatorship (you certainly couldn’t call them a proper republic yet, even though they’d like to be known as such- not with the government-human rights abuses going on) in less time than your average civil war”. / This statement reads to me like a tech article does in msm.

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