New digital rights org sets sights on data retention rollback

Digital Rights Watch wants to drive broader action on issues such as the government’s data retention regime.

A new Australian organisation aims to build a broader fight-back around digital civil liberties.

Digital Rights Watch officially launched today. The chair of the organisation, Tim Singleton Norton, said that DRW isn’t intended as a replacement for existing digital rights and privacy organisations.

Instead the intention is for it to act as an umbrella organisation that can link together and amplify the efforts of different sectors affected by legislation such as the data retention regime.

“We’re trying to get all of those digital space advocates and then link them up with human rights advocates, link them with human rights lawyers, with the telcos and in general with the activism sector, and do it in a way that actually connects them,” he said.

“I guess part of our remit is not to replace anything but to be a connector into the sectors that have to date not been connected with these issues.”

Singleton Norton said that the organisation came out of a series of workshops held at the end of 2015.

A defining feature of the organisation will be reaching out “beyond just the digital realm,” he said.

“A lot of this space has been focussed on a very niche tech industry and that’s meant it hasn’t reached a wider audience of people who will actually be impacted by [legislation],” he said.

Singleton Norton said that 2015 was a “pretty horrific year”, citing the introduction of the data retention scheme, the government’s National Facial Biometric Matching Capability and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement inching closer.

“All of these things came through so rapidly and with very little public debate,” he said.

He said that although there have been some strong advocates on issues such as data retention, ultimately the government has managed to push through legislation with minimal public backlash.

“In many ways the formation of the organisation is a little bit late in some instances,” Singleton Norton said.

“We’ve seen all of this legislation go through but that was also a catalyst — ‘We need a coordinated approach to this so that it doesn’t get worse and then we can roll back some of that horrendous legislation’.”

The organisation has a range of what Singleton Norton describes as ‘foundation partners’ — organisations and individuals that have endorsed the general idea of the organisation and have contributed to its formation in some capacity or another.

Among them are Choice, Thoughtworks, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, the Australian Privacy Foundation, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, broadcaster Mary Kostakidis, and iiNet founder Michael Malone..

“Most of them are backing the concept, the policy agenda and the kind of outlook of our plan,” Singleton Norton said.

“The Privacy Foundation has already said that they’re very willing to work with us on advocacy and policy development when it relates to privacy, whereas Thoughtworks are providing a lot of the back-end support.”

The nascent organisation is already forming international links, Singleton Norton said, including with Fight for the Future in the US and Open Rights Group in the UK.

The data retention regime will be an early focus.

The organisation wants to be able to ‘translate’ the scheme and make information about its impact accessible to the public, including through a series of fortnightly briefings for supporters, journalists, and other advocates.

The organisation will also be developing policy responses as the government introduces new legislation.

“We’ve got a team of policy advisers, at the moment pro bono, from lawyers down to privacy advocates to a whole range of different people and they’ll be developing these policy briefings that hope to influence what’s happening both in parliament and outside [it].”

To that end DRW will also be trying to build a broader movement, he added.

“We’ve been talking to a few of the major campaigning organisations,” Singleton Norton said.

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