Labor will rewrite encryption laws

James Riley
Editorial Director

Federal Labor has committed to re-writing controversial encryption laws to reflect the recommendations of a parliamentary joint committee that was handed to Australia late last year.

Opposition spokesman on the digital economy Ed Husic said top-line changes included removing powers that allow government to compel companies to introduce systemic weaknesses into their products, and stopping agencies from targeting individual employees for surreptitious co-operation.

The changes would include a redrafting of the laws to improve judicial oversight measures.

Flagging a “crystal clear” commitment to amending the legislation in order to find a better balance between national security and the need to secure the digital tools that underpin the rest of the economy, Mr Husic said Labor would commission an inquiry into the economic impact of the legislation.

“All of these things are changes that need to occur, in line with what’s been recommended to the Parliament (by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security),” Mr Husic said.

“This is a Labor position. We are saying we commit to that, either in the current parliament or the next, that these are changes that have to happen,” he said.

As Australian tech industry leaders were telling the Safe Encryption Australia forum in Sydney of the impact that new laws had already had on local hardware and software companies, Microsoft’s global chief operating officer Brad Smith was in Canberra telling a conference that the laws were making the nation’s trading partners nervous and putting ongoing foreign investment in critical tech infrastructure at risk.

Mr Husic pressed the economic imperative for changing the way the encryption laws operate.

“This is as much about national security as it is about economic security. The ability of firms to use encryption, to share information amongst each other and to do so without doubt about whether that’s been interfered with is crucial in this day and age in terms of economic security.”

Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar said the encryption laws in their current form put high-value, export-facing jobs at risk, and were causing real damage to the Australia’s nascent tech industry.

“We have to recognise that these laws threaten jobs,” Mr Farquhar said. “One thing that I have found the politicians respond to is the fact that everyone in Australia votes for the people who are going to deliver jobs.

“And the people in this room [at the Safe Encryption Australia forum] are a part of the industry that is going to deliver jobs for the future. These are high-paying, export-earning jobs that are largely in technology,” Mr Farquhar said.

“These jobs are at risk because of the laws that we passed.”

He said he was compelled to speak out against the encryption legislation because of worrying feedback from international customers about uncertainty about the negative implications of Australia’s laws, and to speak on behalf of Atlassian employees, who he says could be put in an impossible position of working secretly against their colleagues by the laws.

Mr Farquhar also took the mantle of representing early stage startup companies “that are head down at the moment, trying to survive and to turn Australia from a tech backwater into a powerhouse.”

Atlassian is concerned about the “extremely wide net” cast by the provisions of the encryption legislation, and its impact on the privacy rights of ordinary Australians.

Australia does not have a fundamental bill or rights like the United States or he heavy privacy rights of the European Union to act as a counterbalance to such sweeping encryption laws.

Mr Husic and Mr Farquhar were speaking at the Safe Encryption Australia forum in Sydney, an event co-ordinated by and StartupAUS.

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