Technology and online rights

Security bureaucracy frustrated at democratic process

Reports this morning suggest the controversial data retention and national security powers have been “stalled” to after the next election.

The Attorney General’s discussion paper is, certainly, going to a parliamentary committee. But that was always the intention, as this piece from July made plain. So what has been stalled?

Rather, the reports seem to be based around complaints from an anonymous senior national security official that the government isn’t just stamping the data retention laws into effect.

Senior intelligence officials, who have been pushing for the increased powers, complain the legislation will be delayed until after the election due next year.

Yes, sometimes allowing parliament – the democratic representatives of Australian citizens – to scrutinize potentially freedom-restricting law can be time-consuming. And sometimes democracies have elections. That might be frustrating for a bureaucracy that would like more power now. But it is exactly how the system is supposed to work.

And the system gives the public an opportunity to articulate why the data retention policy is so bad. Is it so cynical to suggest that this opportunity is what has so frustrated our senior national security official?

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Don’t ignore the Facebook furore

“Leave what is stupid to the judgment of public opinion; stupidity will find a thousand censors”, wrote the Russian radical Alexander Radishchev in 1790.

The controversy over the foul “Aboriginal memes” group on Facebook has followed a well-worn path. First, outcry, dragging in ministers and shadow ministers. There have been days of news reports about the Facebook group. Second comes the inevitable calls for censorship – initially directed at Facebook itself, but then calls for the law to intervene.

Tony Abbott this morning said the Coalition may give ACMA increased take-down powers to deal with such things, as part of his review into “cyber-bullying”. In the view of the IPA, the communications regulator should be shut down – not granted more power. And it certainly should not be granted further power to censor speech, no matter how offensive or stupid that speech may be.

But calls for censorship usually ignore the effect of public opinion. As Radishchev pointed out – society has a great deal of power to censor the stupid and offensive. Facebook, who may wipe whatever page they like on their site, can respond to the adverse publicity without harming our right to free speech. (Their house, their rules.) In this case, they appear not to have chosen to do so.

But the person who started the group appears to have deleted all the content – no doubt in response to the mass outcry. Public outrage was successful, as it has been successful many times before. The old principle says that the solution to bad speech is more speech. We ought to notice when that principle works.

UPDATE: Facebook pulled the group down earlier today.

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Does Grand Theft Auto really cause grand theft auto?

If you – as we did – responded to NSW Hospitality Minister George Souris’ claim last fortnight that small bars were the cause of Sydney’s violent crime with a bemused headscratch, fear not! This week NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione goes after a far more familiar target – violent video games.

The NSW government and police have tried to pin Sydney’s crime problems on so many sources that the whole exercise is starting to resemble an episode of Today Tonight. I’ve always imagined there’s a script:

There is currently an outcry over [social problem]. This week we should blame it on: A.)Teenage binge drinking B.) “Designer drugs” C.) Young women in short skirts D.) Lack of respect taught in schools E.) The internet. Please limit yourself to one potential cause per week.

And yet, unfortunately for Scipione, the link between violent video games and violent crime is about as clear as the link between small bars and violence: not very. The economist Eric Crampton points to a paper that shows “while violent games get violent people excited about violence, they also reduce crime … by keeping violent people in their houses playing violent video games where they’d otherwise be going out to do violent things.” So much for that explanation then.

I suspect most people would be uncomfortable with the idea that the NSW police commissioner thinks we’re all one game of Grand Theft Auto IV away from mass knife crime. Endlessly pontificating on possible causes of violence isn’t what the public expects of its police force. What the public expects the police to do is actually pretty basic: effective and efficient policing.

Or maybe next week Scipione can try blaming shonky plumbers.

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Private data no more

News has broken this morning that an alleged Canadian spy sold classified Australian intelligence documents to Russian agents.

The scale of the illegal disclosure is vast. Comparisons have been made to the huge numbers of military documents US Army Private Bradley Manning allegedly handed over to WikiLeaks.

This obviously raises serious concerns about the Australian government’s ability to keep important data secure.

And it’s not the first time the government has had major issues with confidential information.

A 2006 study into Centrelink found 800 cases of illegal snooping by 100 staff.

Over the three year period from 2008-2010 1000 Medicare employees were investigated for spying on personal information.

And there are probably many cases of government misuse and mismanagement of private information that are simply never reported.

But even in the face of examples like these the Attorney General’s department still thinks it’s a good idea to make ISPs effective wards of the state: forcing them to log every site we visit, every Facebook and Twitter message we send and receive.

There are already a number of reasons why we should be suspicious of the government’s proposed data retention regime. The numerous cases of bureaucrats mishandling our private data should make us even more sceptical of these draconian internet surveillance proposals.

We simply can’t trust them with our private data.

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Roxon edges away, Conroy doubles down

In Saturday’s papers, the Attorney General Nicola Roxon suggested that the case for her own department’s data retention and internet surveillance laws had not been made. She is absolutely right. But that relatively positive development was somewhat undermined by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s passionate defence of more internet regulation on Meet the Press on the same day. (You can watch the video here, and the transcript is here.)

Followers of earlier internet freedom debates will recall that Conroy’s advocacy of the internet filter in 2007 and 2008 left no moral panic and strawman unturned. He’s taking the same strategy on data retention policies.

First, the moral panic. “Organised crime around the world has taken up the benefits of the internet.” Yet there is much less to “cybercrime” than the panic merchants would have us think – I examined the origins of those big, terrifying cybercrime statistics in the Sunday Age mid-last year.

Second, the strawman. In Conroy’s view, opponents of these new security proposals believe that the “internet should be completely unregulated”, and that they want to “abandon all law” when we go online. This is simply nonsense, and he surely knows it. Any activity online is governed by very real national laws. (An excellent book on the complex interaction between an international network and local law is Who Rules the Net?: Internet Governance and Jurisdiction from 2003.) Conroy clearly imagines his government’s critics to be nothing more than teenaged cyber-utopians. But his government’s proposal is not to introduce existing law to an online world, but to massively increase the power and extent of those laws.

The Attorney General’s department paper proposing the data retention laws was vague. If the best argument for them is the sort of distraction and hyperbole Conroy presented on Saturday, then their reality may be worse than we think.

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But what if Howard was introducing these internet surveillance laws?

In today’s Australian Financial Review, John Roskam urges Labor MPs to ask themselves the obvious question:

Labor MPs should ask themselves something … along the lines of: “How would I feel if a conservative government did some of the things the Gillard government now wants to do?” …

The press censorship the Gillard government is contemplating is bad, but from the perspective of Labor backbenchers, the motives for it might be understandable. They believe it’s their chance to get back at a media that they believe has been biased and unfair. But no such excuse is available when it comes to what the government wants to do about internet surveillance.

Read the whole thing here.

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Outrageous new security powers proposed by the Gillard government

My ABC Drum column this week discusses the obnoxious proposals of the Attorney-General’s Department to massively increase the government’s internet surveillance and security powers.

Any proposal by the government to increase its own power should be treated with scepticism. Double that scepticism when the government is vague about why it needs that extra power. Double again when those powers are in the area of law and order. And double again every time the words “national security” are used.

Read the whole thing here. Simon Breheny, Research Fellow with the IPA’s Rule of Law Project sent out this press release earlier opposing the security law proposals.

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Gillard government internet surveillance laws unprecedented threat to civil liberties

“The Gillard Government’s proposed internet surveillance laws will fundamentally erode civil liberties and should be rejected outright,” said Simon Breheny, director of the Rule of Law Project at the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Last week the Commonwealth Attorney General’s department released a discussion paper Equipping Australia Against Emerging and Evolving Threats proposing an extraordinary range of government powers over telecommunications and internet.

The proposals include granting power to 16 state and federal security agencies to monitor citizens’ private communications, including Facebook and Twitter accounts. It also proposes giving the Attorney General the power to unilaterally vary warrants and imposes the “data retention” regime which would require internet service providers to record and store all their users’ activity for two years.

“There are huge concerns that the government is considering allowing the Attorney General to arbitrarily vary a warrant without requiring a court order. Making it a crime to refuse to hand over login details to security agencies is also in direct opposition to the right to silence.

“This is completely unacceptable.

“These proposals are a spectacular power grab by the Attorney General’s Department. They are incredibly excessive and completely unjustified. There is no case for this unprecedented intrusion by the government into the lives of citizens and we cannot trust the government with our private data.”

“This is a government that has undermined the authority of parliament and is hostile to freedom of speech. It now appears to have citizens’ private communications on the internet in its sights,” Mr Breheny said.

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Convergence: dangerously workable

In the ABC’s Drum, I look at the troubling freedom of speech issues raised by the Convergence Review:

One pregnant sentence in the Convergence Review says, “It is important to note that the current Australian Press Council regime where members can opt out or reduce funding is not an acceptable situation.”

When the review’s draft terms of reference were released in 2010, nobody expected proposals to regulate ‘fairness’ in newspapers would form a core part of the review’s final report.

And that sentence’s claim – that voluntary press regulation is unacceptable, and regulation is necessary – undercuts the review’s repeated assertions that its “underlying approach [is] in favour of deregulation”.

Read more here.

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