news Nicola Roxon has publicly linked the religious protests held in Sydney last week over a YouTube video and the issue of cyber-bullying to the Federal Government’s wide-ranging packaging of surveillance and data retention measures, in what the Federal Attorney-General stated was “a lot of different trends coming together”.
It has been a furious several months for those who follow Australia’s ongoing political debate on how the Internet should be regulated, monitored and controlled down under.
Firstly, the Federal Attorney-General’s Department is currently promulgating a package of reforms which would see a number of wide-ranging changes made to make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor what Australians are doing on the Internet. For example, one new power is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs to retain data on their customers’ Internet and telephone activities for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites. Another power would see it made illegal for Australians to refuse to decrypt their data, and warrants are also to be simplified and streamlined.
Secondly, following several high-profile verbal attacks on celebrities through social networking sites such as Twitter, a number of major media outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and politicians such as Roxon, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell have sparked a public campaign calling for co-called ‘cyber-bullies’ to be reined in, and for the social networking sites to cooperate more fully with local law enforcement authorities.
Lastly, last week a video posted on YouTube ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed of the Islamic religious tradition sparked a wave of global protests — including in Australia — by Muslims who saw the material as being offensive. Some politicians, such as Conroy, have called for YouTube to take the video down, but YouTube owner Google has declined to do so, stating that the content was within its guidelines.
Previously, these issues have been perceived to be relatively distinct from each other, with the surveillance and data retention proposal dating back several years, and the recent social media controversies being a very recent phenomenon. However, in an interview on ABC Radio National last week (the full audio is available here), Roxon appeared to make a link between them. “I do think there are a lot of different trends coming together here,” said Roxon. “I want to make sure our law enforcement agencies have the powers that they need and can keep up with the new technology.”
Asked whether the issue of social media and text messages was too big an issue for the Government to tackle, Roxon said: “Well, it’s a big challenge if they’re expected to monitor and instigate an inquiry all the time. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger challenge than before, where that evidence is provided. And, of course, with cyber bullying, you often have a victim who comes forward with that information.”
“And funnily enough, this is, sort of, one of the proposals that is before one of our parliamentary committees at the moment,” the Attorney-General added, “and has been, you know, passionately argued against by those who think that everything that happens on the internet or in the social media should be free from any government interference.”
“Well, in fact, we want our law enforcement agencies to be able to use different forms of communications if that helps them put together a case against someone who’s been involved in a violent protest and committed a crime. But I want people to rest assured that if they’re using the social media, you know, to keep in contact with their friends and at their work and to do all the things that are causing no harm to any of the community, they shouldn’t have their privacy unnecessarily breached by any of the proposals that we are looking at.”
“There is, I think, a growing trend that police are concerned about, how quickly information can get out through social media and Twitter. And of course you can be charged with offences that already exist under our criminal laws if you are using communication in a way which could breach those criminal laws. I guess what is the point that’s being made here is we can look at that information, where we have access to it. We can use information that’s available to see whether that actually shows somebody’s been involved in inciting violence and potentially breaching our criminal laws because of it.”
Some commentators, such as digital rights campaigner Geordie Guy, have speculated in recent weeks that the Government would seek to link the controversy over so-called social media “trolls” to help gain momentum for its unpopular new surveillance and data retention laws, arguing that the social media issue would provide a community outcry on an issue that would allow the Government to show its data retention and Internet surveillance proposal was needed.
“The “troll problem” is a gift-wrapped non-problem that the media has seized on and caused the waves to part between the government and a sweeping range of new police powers,” wrote Guy last week. “The Prime Minister meeting [rugby player] Robbie Farah, the Communications Minister unleashing a spray on talkback radio about how Twitter won’t co-operate unless warrants or orders are produced, this is all reversing the momentum against the power grab. “But we can’t catch terrorists” wasn’t working so now the conversation is “but we can’t catch mean people”.
In general, the Government’s data retention and surveillance package has attracted a significant degree of criticism from the wider community over the past few months since it was first mooted. Digital rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has described the new powers as being akin to those applied in restrictive countries such as China and Iran, while the Greens have described the package as “a systematic erosion of privacy”.
In separate submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the reforms, a number of major telecommunications companies including iiNet and Macquarie Telecom, as well as telco and ISP representative industry groups, have expressed sharp concern over aspects of the reform package, stating that “insufficient evidence” had been presented to justify them. And Victoria’s Acting Privacy Commissioner has labelled some of the included reforms as “being characteristic of a police state”.
The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative and free market-focused think tank, wrote in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the matter that many of the proposals of the Government were “unnecessary and excessive. “The proposal … is onerous and represents a significant incursion on the civil liberties of all Australians,” wrote the IPA in its submission, arguing that the data retention policy should be “rejected outright”. And one Liberal backbencher, Steve Ciobo, has described the new proposal as being akin to “Gestapo” tactics.
In addition, yesterday The Australian newspaper reported that about a dozen Coalition MPs had bitterly complained about the data retention proposals in a passionate party room meeting, with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott being urged to directly pressure the Government on the issue.
On the issue of cyber-bullying, commentators such as Rosemary Purcell, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, have pointed out that current research shows the issue is not a substantial one, and could already be addressing through existing law. “Most Australian states and territories have laws that could be used as a legal remedy to address these forms of online abuse,” Purcell wrote on The Conversation last week.
Wow. Geordie Guy had better buy himself a few Lotto tickets (and sign me up for some as well), because the prediction of the former Electronic Frontiers Australia activist that the Government would attempt to use the cyber-trolling issue as a stimulus for its data retention and surveillance package already seems to be coming true.
Personally, I am simply flabbergasted at the fact that our Federal Attorney-General has publicly linked a bunch of proposed data retention and Internet surveillance laws to a public protest, not to mention social media cyber-bullying. These are laws which, Australians have been told repeatedly, were being brought in to deal with serious offences such as terrorism or high-level crime. And yet, all it took was a few offence tweets on Twitter, plus a somewhat unruly protest by people offended by a YouTube video, and already we’re talking about sharing information between law enforcement agencies and linking data retention to the protestors and cyber-bullies.
Frankly, if this isn’t scope creep, then I don’t know what is. And if this doesn’t demonstrate the potential for data retention and Internet surveillance powers to be abused by law enforcement agencies and become political tools as well, then I don’t know what does. It is just not ‘OK’ that Australia’s Attorney-General has conflated these three separate issues together, and I encourage those out there who are similarly concerned to speak up about this issue in public.
Image credit: Office of Nicola Roxon