An array of civil and digital rights organisations have joined forces with corporate giants in a global alliance to oppose the federal government’s controversial encryption bill.
The Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet includes Amnesty International Australia, Digital Rights Watch, the Human Rights Law Centre, as well as DIGI – the global lobby for tech behemoths Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon – and the Communications Alliance, Optus and Telstra.
The alliance is calling on the federal government and other parties to reject the encryption bill, which gives Australian law enforcement and other agencies sweeping new powers to compel tech companies to circumvent encryption, in its current form.
The group is also planning to hold a public forum in Canberra on the day of the hearing into the legislation, and to meet with politicians on both sides of the aisle on the matter.
Alliance spokesperson and Digital Rights Watch board-member Lizzie O’Shea said the group was formed after what many perceived as the government attempting to rush through the contentious legislation.
“Each group provided input into the exposure draft and commented on it, but then found it immensely frustrating that it was waved through the Coalition party room with very little changes, and pushed into a committee with only one day of hearings,” Ms O’Shea told InnovationAus.com. “They’re really rushing it through.”
Such an alliance with a diverse range of industry players and human rights group is unique and aims to send a clear message to politicians, she said.
“The unique nature of this alliance is a testament to how serious this bill is, because we’ve all united around the key call to not pass the bill as it is,” Ms O’Shea said. “It’s challenging to bring together such a broad coalition.”
“We have human rights organisations all the way through to industry groups and representatives from the telecommunications industry, as well as tech companies,” she said.
The long-awaited encryption legislation was unveiled in mid-August, with consultations on it closing on 10 September.
Just five working days later it was approved by the Coalition party room with minor changes, and was introduced to Parliament later that month.
On the same day, the legislation was referred to a parliamentary joint committee with only a three week submission window, and one day of public hearings.
The legislation is “deeply alarming”, Ms O’shea said, and the alliance is calling on the government to pause and consider submissions, and for the Opposition to reject the bill in its current format.
“It’s critical that lawmakers think really carefully about the implications of this bill before assuming that it is just a debate on national security,” she said. “Lawmakers should think carefully about the legislation that is put to them.”
“There are straightforward arguments about how threatening this is to our digital security and that ought to be taken on. We are united around the call to reject the bill in its current form.”
The alliance is particularly concerned with the impact the new powers would have on encryption as a whole, and a lack of judicial oversight on the issuing of notices to tech companies.
“Obviously encryption isn’t something that just protects messages between individuals – a huge amount of digital infrastructure relies on encryption to protect from hacking. All these systems make use of encryption to avoid data flows being intercepted by people who shouldn’t be intercepting them.”
Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said the legislation sets a troubling precedent globally.
“The scope of this legislation sets a disturbing world-first benchmark and poses real threats to the cybersecurity and privacy rights of all Australians,” Mr Stanton said.
“Instead of trying to ram this legislation through the committee process and the Parliament, the government needs to sit down with stakeholders, engage on the details and collectively come up with workable, reasonable proposals that meet the objective of helping enforcement agencies be more effective in the digital age.”
The group will target its lobbying effort on the Opposition, which has showed signs that it is willing to slow the passing of the legislation and consider it in depth.
Speaking in Parliament when the legislation was introduced, home affairs minister Peter Dutton said the government had taken public submissions on board when drafting the bill.
“The government has undertaken extensive industry and public consultation on the bill and has made amendments to account for the constructive feedback received,” Mr Dutton said.
Mr Dutton also defended the bill, saying the new powers are necessary for law enforcement in the digital age.
“New communications technology, including encryption is eroding the capacity of Australia’s law enforcement and security agencies to investigate serious criminal conduct and protect Australians,” he said.
“The lack of access to encrypted communications presents an increasingly significant barrier for national security and law enforcement agencies in investigating serious crimes and national security threats,” he said.
“No responsible government can sit by while those who protect our community lose access to the tools they need to do their job. In the current threat environment, we cannot let this problem get worse.”