Australian Internet laws the butt of jokes worldwide

When it comes to technology and the Internet, Australia is "something of a laughing stock internationally" since the Federal Government's introduction of the online gambling ban and digital television legislation, a Senate committee heard last week.

Electronic Frontiers Australia vice chairman Gregory Taylor questioned whether Australia should take the lead in drafting computer crime laws based on the European convention which is yet to be adopted in Europe.

He warned Australia should tread carefully with the Cybercrime Bill 2001, considering past legislative mistakes in the area of technology.

Speaking at Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee hearings into the draft computer crime bill, Taylor raised concerns about proposed investigative powers under the legislation and forced disclosure of security passwords and access to encrypted data.

Under the bill, the Government can impose a prison term if passwords or encryption keys are not provided.

It also proposes penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment for 'unauthorised' modification of data or access to information within a computer.

Taylor asked why steps are being taken to criminalise access to information just because it is in a computer, particularly if there is no damage. "We do not have similar offences for information that is stored in a filing cabinet; the bill does not necessarily require that any damage or harm be caused in relation to any unauthorised intrusion," he said.

Geoffrey McDonald, assistant secretary to the Attorney General's Department, defended the bill, claiming it did not criminalise innocuous activities. He pointed out that "criminal intent" and "proof of intention" had to be demonstrated in a court of law.

McDonald said forcing a person to provide a computer password or encryption key as part of an investigation is the electronic equivalent of a key to a filing cabinet or the combination to a safe.

"Officers will not be able to hack into any computer whatsoever but will be able to access data only where there are reasonable grounds to believe that it may contain evidential material," he said.

"In view of the fact that an electronic document may not even exist on a single computer but may be drawn together from elements on different computers, and the ease with which hackers can download data onto someone else's computer, it is essential that police have the power to access evidential material regardless of where it is held on a network."

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