news The Pirate Party of Australia today confirmed it would continue fighting to have key documents associated with the Government’s controversial data retention and surveillance package released to the public, flagging plans to appeal a decision by the Federal Attorney-General’s Department to block the release of the documents under Freedom of Information laws.
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 Australians forced to decrypt their sensitive information on demand.
The Pirate Party, which is an activist and political organisation which lobbies to maintain and extend Australians’ digital rights and freedoms, has previously filed a Freedom of Information request with the department, seeking draft national security legislation which had been prepared in 2010 with respect to the current proposal. The draft legislation had been mentioned by the Sydney Morning Herald in an article in August.
However, the Attorney-General’s Department wrote back to the organisation last month, noting that the request had been denied. Logan Tudor, a legal officer with the department, wrote that he had decided that the draft legislation was exempted from being released because it contained material which was being deliberated on inside the department. “… the release of this material would, in my view, be contrary to the public interest,” Tudor wrote.
In a new statement released this morning, the Pirate Party confirmed it would appeal the department’s decision to the Australian Office of the Information Commissioner.
“After what was a disgraceful decision by the bureaucrats at the Attorney General’s Department to suppress these documents, we have now elected to appeal to the Information Commissioner so that we might finally come to understand the position of the Attorney General’s Department, and the advice they have received thus far,” said Rodney Serkowski, speaking for Pirate Party Australia.
“Whilst we have seen improvements in Freedom of Information laws in this country, there is still vast room for improvement, with the culture of secrecy still permeating throughout the public service. Processes and information that should be publicly available, are being suppressed for political reasons and to inhibit meaningful scrutiny and participation by non-governmental organisations and civil society.”
“None of the reasons or factors presented by the Attorney General’s Department are, nor should be, legitimate reasons for the suppression of government documents. We sincerely hope the Information Commissioner orders the release of the information that we have requested. Any reason for suppressing a document has to be weighed against the value of ‘increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government’s activities’, which is a basic democratic value — indeed one of the cornerstones of democracy.”
The department’s decision to block the Pirate Party’s FOI request is not the first time the documents have been blocked from being released. Similarly, in October, Australia’s two major sides of politics combined to block a Senate order moved by the Greens which would have forced the Attorney-General’s Department to produce key documents it is holding regarding advice it had received pertaining to the controversial data retention and surveillance scheme it is pushing.
In two Senate orders he recently put before the parliament, Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam had sought key documents pertaining to the proposal. If they had been successful, the Senate orders would have seen any legal, technical and political advice received by the Government made public and tabled in Parliament, as well as any other relevant information pertaining to the proposed data retention scheme. However, Ludlam said in a statement this afternoon, both Labor and the Coalition voted against the Senate orders.
“It was a perfectly reasonable request made in the interest of open and honest public debate – and the Labor Party and Coalition united to keep this information secret,” said Ludlam at the time. “Today’s vote is a travesty. While the Government believes in the total exposure of private citizens’ correspondence – which is what data retention would mean – it colludes with the Opposition to keep its own plans concealed.”
The appeal of the Pirate Party’s FoI request comes as opposition to the data retention and surveillance proposal continues to grow. Several weeks ago, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull broke his silence regarding the package, declaring that he had “grave misgivings” about a project which he feels “seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction”.
“Without wanting to pre-empt the conclusions of the Parliamentary Committee, I must record my very grave misgivings about the proposal,” Turnbull told the audience. “It seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction. Surely as we reflect on the consequences of the digital shift from a default of forgetting to one of perpetual memory we should be seeking to restore as far as possible the individual’s right not simply to their privacy but to having the right to delete that which they have created in the same way as can be done in the analogue world.”
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, several weeks ago 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.
Roxon and agencies such as the Australian Federal Police have attempted to justify the need for a data retention scheme by stating that the increasing use of the Internet by criminals has made traditional telecommunications interception powers less useful.
“The need to consider a data retention scheme has come about because of changes in technology that have affected the behaviour of criminal and national security suspects,” said Roxon recently. “Targets of interest now utilise the wide range of telecommunications services available to them to communicate, coordinate, manage and carry out their activities. The ability to lawfully access telecommunications data held by the telecommunications industry enables investigators to identify and build a picture of a suspect, provides vital leads of inquiry and creates evidence for alibis and prosecutions.”