As 2014 draws to a close, and EFA approaches its 21st birthday next month, we’ve been thinking about what we’d like to see happen in the year ahead.
The Australian government seems intent on passing a series of laws (in addition to some they’ve already rammed through the parliament) that pose serious threats to civil liberties and the open Internet. So that will obviously be a key focus for us. But it’s not all gloom and doom - there are some potentially very positive developments that we hope will progress, if not actually be realised in 2015.
Mandatory data retention
Indiscriminate, mandatory retention of communications data is both unnecessary and would be a disproportionate invasion of the privacy of all Australians while also fundamentally undermining the presumption of innocence. We hope that the Labor Party will stand up to the government and not allow through the parliament the current legislation which is woefully incomplete in that it does not even define the data to be collected!
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The recently-passed National Security legislation which includes the now infamous ‘section 35P’ is an outright attack on whistleblowers and investigative journalists that, particularly if combined with an indiscriminate mandatory data retention regime will spell the effective end of reporting about the activities of our intelligence agencies. This represents a fundamental threat to our democracy by undermining the ability for these agencies to be held to account when they exceed their authority or get things badly wrong. We therefore believe it is imperative that this section be repealed and that similar attacks on whistleblowers and journalists be strongly resisted.
Stronger oversight of intelligence agencies
As the powers available to intelligence agencies continue to be expanded, it is critical that their activities be subject to more effective oversight and accountability. We’d like to see the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security given greater powers to examine operational matters of the intelligence agencies, as the equivalent Committee in the UK can, in addition to its current role which is limited to examining legislation.
The government’s proposal to allow rightsholders to obtain court injunctions to block websites is an affront to freedom of expression and will achieve little except to create work for the legal profession. The government’s ultimatum to ISPs to come to an agreement with rightsholders, ‘or else’, will ensure that consumers are, once again, the losers. We’d like to see the government focus on encouraging rightsholders to continue to evolve their often out-dated business models to provide faster, cheaper and more convenient access to content, rather than focusing on infringement, which is largely the symptom, not the cause.
Secret trade deals
Highly-secret negotiations of multilateral trade deals must stop. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the even more secret Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) negotiations are an affront to Australian sovereignty and represent the worst form of policy laundering. The European Commission has recently announced that it will be releasing the negotiating texts of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The Australian government must follow this lead and release the negotiating texts for the TPP and TISA.
On a more positive note, we’re optimistic that 2015 will see genuine discussion and progress towards meaningful reform of Australia’s anachronistic Copyright Act. We firmly believe that the introduction of a broad fair use exception, as proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission last November, will provide the flexibility and technology-neutrality that is critical to ensuring Australia’s digital economy is able to flourish and that Australian consumers are able to realise the full benefits of the digital revolution.
Another positive development that we’re looking forward to in 2015 is the ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty (formally the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities). This treaty is a long-awaited global agreement designed to remove impediments to the creation and distribution of accessible-format versions of books and other content for the visually-impaired.
Privacy Alerts bill
The Privacy Alerts bill, which would have introduced a requirement for organisations covered by the Privacy Act to notify the Privacy Commissioner of any data breaches was about to be passed by the Senate on the last day of the former Parliament. It enjoyed cross-partisan support at that time, but now the Coalition seems very disinterested in passing it (it's since been reintroduced by Labor Senator Lisa Singh). We’d like to see this important piece of legislation passed without further delay.
Reform of section 313 of the Telecommunications Act
This obscure section of the Telecommunications Act provides government agencies with very broad and extremely ill-defined powers to ‘request assistance’ from telcos and ISPs. We’ve already seen it misused by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to block websites, with massive collateral damage. We look forward to the findings of the inquiry by the House of Representatives Committee on Infrastructure and Communications in this regard, which we hope will lead to this section being repealed or at least very significantly tightened up.
‘Children’s eSafety’ legislation
While there is no doubt that bullying can be deeply destructive and that children are particularly vulnerable to it, the government’s attempt to address this issue through its ‘Enhancing Online Safety’ legislation is seriously flawed. Rather than seeking to establish new, extremely broadly-defined powers for a bureaucrat to order content to be removed from the Internet, and to send notices to people who send ‘harmful’ email and texts, we’d like to see the government focusing on funding the educational programmes which most research shows is the most effective approach to this issue. Also, if they are really serious about ‘tackling cyberbullying’, they shouldn’t be excluding adults from their response.
2014 saw a huge expansion in interest and usage of encryption technologies. We hope that will continue in 2015, and that service providers will increasingly include encryption as a core feature, rather than an after-thought. We’d particularly like to see widespread adoption of technologies like HTTPS Everywhere at the user end and PFS, STARTTLS, HSTS, and encrypted traffic between data centres on the part of website operators.
Tort of Privacy
In September 2014, the Australian Law Reform Commission detailed what would be required to implement ‘a statutory cause of action for serious invasions of privacy’ (or a ‘Tort of Privacy’). We’d like to see this given serious consideration as we believe it would address some of the gaping holes in current privacy protections in Australia.
We’d like to see enforceable rights to free expression and privacy for Australians written into law. Ideally, this would take the form of a bill of rights with constitutional status which would bring make the NBN ‘better, faster and stronger’in line with most other developed countries and would provide much-needed protection against governmental tendencies towards authoritarian overreach, particularly in relation to surveillance powers.
A future-proof National Broadband Network
Last, but by no means least, there’s the National Broadband Network. Communications Minister Turnbull claims that his rejigged NBNCo will make the NBN ‘better, faster, stronger’. While we’re by no means convinced that his preferred Fibre-to-the-Node model is the correct approach, we hope that significant progress will be made on the national rollout in 2015 to provide much-needed improvements in connectivity speeds across the Australian community.