Encryption fix may now be dead

James Riley
Editorial Director

Planned amendments to the government’s highly controversial encryption legislation are likely dead in the water following the weekend’s shock election result.

Labor had pledged to reform the bill, which provides new powers to authorities and agencies to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted communications, if it won the election.

Labor also promised to introduce further amendments even if it remained in Opposition. But with the Coalition now set to form a majority in the House of Representatives, it appears unlikely that the amendments will have the support needed to pass through Parliament.

John Stanton: Wants both sides of politics to revisit the controversial legislation

A number of industry groups are now calling on Labor to follow through with its promise and introduce the amendments to Parliament, and for the Coalition to reconsider its support for the changes.

“What we’d like to see is a commitment from both sides of politics to really knuckle down on both pieces of legislation early in the term,” Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton told InnovationAus.com.

“There is a raft of necessary amendments that have come out of the list that Labor put forward on 6 December,” he said.

“What we’d like is a fresh, cooperative approach to fix the problems that exist. A fresh parliamentary term and mandate provides an opportunity for the sensible reform and to fix mistakes. I hope the government grasps that opportunity.”

Labor moved a series of amendments in the Senate earlier this year, but they stalled in Parliament and were not debated again.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) tabled a report into amendments already made to the bill on the last sitting day of Parliament in April.

The committee only agreed to three minor recommendations: the PJCIS’ review of the amendments be due in June 2020, sufficient resources be made available for the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s own review, and that the government should ensure that the relevant oversight bodies have sufficient resources.

Before the election, Opposition digital economy spokesman Ed Husic had said Labor would move a number of amendments to the Assistance and Access Bill, including a new definition of “systemic weakness”, improved judicial oversight, and an inquiry into the economic impact of the bill.

The PJCIS will provide a full report on the new powers by April 2020, while the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor will report back on it by March next year.

Despite Labor’s election loss, Parliament still needs to urgently amend the legislation, Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said.

“The Australian people will still demand to see radical changes to the legislation that invades their privacy and impacts on their rights,” Mr Singleton Norton told InnovationAus.com.

“We’ll certainly be calling on Labor to hold to their promise of amendments to the encryption legislation.

“While the Coalition won with the promise of pretend jobs in an industry rapidly shrinking due to automation, real jobs in tech industries will head offshore as the hostile powers under the Assistance and Access legislation become entrenched.”

The new Parliament must quickly debate the new amendments to the encryption powers, Australian Information Industry Association chief executive Ron Gauci said.

“It’s time to execute these amendments so that industry and users of encrypted services have certainty over these new laws,” Mr Gauci told InnovationAus.com.

“The AIIA has made significant contributions and recommendations with respect to these amendments – but has yet to see the recommendations considered or adopted, leaving industry unclear on the operational requirements,” Mr Gauci said.

“We look forward to greater two-way dialogue between government and industry to address the concerns that have been raised by our members about these pieces of legislation.”

The industry groups are also calling on the new Parliament to reconsider the social media laws that were quickly passed on the last sitting day before the federal election.

The bill, introduced following the Christchurch terrorist attack, introduces financial penalties and jail time for companies and executives that host “abhorrent and violent” content.

Despite supporting the legislation, Labor admitted it was ‘flawed’ and that it had “serious concerns” with it. The Opposition had pledged to refer the legislation to the PJCIS for a review.

If no changes are made to either of the new laws, significant damage will be done to the Australian tech sector, Mr Stanton said.

“The erosion of international trust in the Australian tech sector will continue, and that will have impacts on investments and jobs and exports revenue, and the problems contained in the encryption legislation will start to have damaging effects in terms of cybersecurity, and in terms of the rights and privacy of all Australians,” he said.

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