news Four of Australia’s most important industry groups have joined forces to deliver an unprecedented and comprehensive rejection of the Government’s planned national security telco legislation, labelling the bill ineffective and adding burdensome regulation and costs on the private sector.
The legislation has been in development by the Attorney-General’s Department for at least a year and is dubbed the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms. It will give the Government sweeping powers over private sector telecommunications networks, including requiring telcos to notify security agencies of key changes to networks and giving the Attorney-General’s Department the power to request information from and issue directions to telcos.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that the bill could result in telcos being informed they cannot buy equipment from certain manufacturers. This would be likely to mean that companies such as Chinese network manufacturer Huawei — which has already been banned from contracting to the National Broadband Network on un-named security concerns — may lose contracts worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars with key suppliers such as Telstra, Vodafone and Optus.
Huawei’s hardware has been cleared in a major security audit undertaken in the UK, but the Australian Government has maintained its ban on the massive company’s equipment for the NBN. Similar sanctions have been imposed by the Department of Defence in Australia on fellow Chinese supplier Lenovo.
However, yesterday three major industry groups which will be affected by the changes — the Communications Alliance, the self-regulatory body which represents almost all major telcos in Australia, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Alliance, which represents the mobile industry, the Australian Information Industry Association, which represents the technology sector, and the Australian Industry Group, which represents industry as a whole — joined forces to note major concerns with the bill.
The four Associations collectively represent the bulk of Australia’s $100 billion ICT industry. It is a relatively unprecedented move to see them uniting on a single policy issue in this manner.
In a joint statement, the industry groups said they acknowledged the importance of the Government’s objective of protecting telecommunications infrastructure and the information transmitted across it from interference, but stressed that industry already had a strong interest and demonstrated expertise in ensuring Australia’s networks were secure.
In their submission (PDF) to the exposure draft of the legislation which has been published by the Attorney-General’s Department, the three groups outlined a number of concerns, including their claim that the legislation:
- Could create significant additional and intrusive powers for Government to intervene in the commercial operations of telecommunications businesses;
- Could discourage investment in and the adoption and deployment of new network technologies;
- Is likely to impose additional costs on industry and ultimately consumers;
- Does not offer indemnity to service providers against the risk of civil litigation through ‘safe harbours’, thereby limiting information sharing and the ability to quickly respond to threats and to jointly engage in preventative action;
- Is inconsistent with regulatory approaches to protecting networks in other countries, including the UK, USA and Canada; and
- Lacks transparency and fails to provide adequate consultative mechanisms and avenues of appeal.
“The draft legislation goes too far in pursuit of the security objective by creating wide-ranging powers for Government to intervene in operational decisions such as buying equipment and choosing vendors and demanding commercially sensitive information from companies involved in the telecommunications industry,” the four groups wrote in their statement.
“As a result, industry is very concerned the legislation would not deliver the increased protection the proposed reforms are aiming to achieve while also imposing significant new costs and red tape on industry.”
Minister Turnbull last week claimed that the telecommunications industry and the Government are on a “unity ticket” with respect to the new tranche of national security-related telco reforms.
The groups welcomed these and similar assurances from Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis. However, they also noted that they were “yet to be convinced” that there were sufficient grounds to warrant the proposed reforms and the costs and intrusion into the commercial operations of Australian telecommunications companies and their suppliers that they represent.
Wow. Just wow. It is pretty much an unprecedented move for these four major industry groups — representing the entire Australian technology and telecommunications industry and beyond, into mainstream business circles — to express such strong concerns about a piece of legislation.
What we are seeing here is an entire, multi, multi-billion dollar industry — one of Australia’s largest — banding together to say “enough is enough”. The industry has worked with the Federal Government on a number of pieces of legislation recently, but this latest bill is clearly one massive step too far for the many thousands of companies represented by these large and powerful industry associations.
What’s worse, we are seeing these companies making a very strong argument that the current Coalition Government is heaping burdensome regulation on their operations. This is not normally the sort of criticism which conservative governments face — usually they are keen to work closely with industry to chart paths to growth and deregulation, not the opposite.
I don’t think Australia’s tech sector has yet reached the stage where it is openly trying to remove the current Government from power by ploughing money into election campaigns in marginal seats, as Australia’s renewable energy sector has started doing.
However, one does wonder how long it will be before Australia’s technology sector decides to do just that. If the Government continues to lay down policy after policy which impinges on the operations of Australia’s tech sector, while funnelling investment money away from fast-growing industries such as the tech startup scene and the video gaming scene, how long will it be before the industry as a whole decides this is the wrong Government for it? That it would be better off with Plan B?
Now, I’m not encouraging such a thing by any means. I personally believe that the less corporate influence and its money is involved in politics, the better — Governments should have clear space to sensitively regulate industry, and getting companies involved in electoral races always seems a bit inappropriate.
And I also believe that there are Ministers and backbenchers in the Abbott Government who are still actively listening to the technology sector. It is my opinion that Minister Turnbull listens more to the sector than Senator Brandis does, for example, and there are young guns such as Wyatt Roy who are actively engaged. Jane Prentice and Alex Hawke are two Liberal MPs commonly cited as being tech-savvy, as is Jamie Briggs.
However, I will note also that if Australia’s technology sector is starting to flex its muscle in the way we’re seeing today, then Governments of any persuasion would be foolhardy indeed to ignore that.